Libya and the Powell Doctrine

Craig here.

Putting aside the very important debate about the War Powers Act and Libya for the moment, I’m struck by the continuing “death rattle” of doctrines which have until recently dominated US foreign policy in the post-Cold War era – those developed by Caspar Weinberger, refined by Colin Powell, and eventually amended in the post-9/11 world by both Powell and Donald Rumsfeld.  These policy statements formed the cornerstone to US foreign policy through five presidential administrations, spanning over twenty-five years.

Some observers have proclaimed the death of the Powell doctrine in recent years – partly due to decisions made by the current administration with regard to Afghanistan.    Yet, even to this day the famous “tests” of that doctrine continue to frame any discussion about the use of military force – especially with regard to Libya. For something now “dead” the former JCS Chairman and Secretary of State’s philosophy seems very much in play!  The “bumper sticker” version of the Powell doctrine holds that the US should only use military force where objectives are clear, support at home is overwhelming, and with the full weight of force to end the affair quickly.  But like most things in our 24-7 news cycle, that’s oversimplification.

Powell based his list of tests upon ideas laid down in 1984 by then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.  In a speech to the National Press Club, Weinberger put forth a set of parameters where military force might be used as an instrument of foreign policy:

  • Vital interests of the US or its allies is at stake.
  • Clear intention of winning in any combat operations.
  • Clearly defined political and military objectives.
  • Commitment of only the force levels needed to achieve those objectives, and re-adjusted as needed during the operation.
  • Commitment of forces only with the support of public opinion and of course the Congress.
  • Commitment of forces considered only as the last resort.

Of course, Weinberger derived this doctrine based in part on his personal observations in the post-Vietnam and early Reagan years – particularly with reference to the Marine Barracks in Beirut and the invasion of Grenada.  Not directly stated was the intent to limit the exposure of US forces in both numbers and deployment time.  The long shadow of Vietnam necessitated such.  For a nation whose original foreign policy was “no foreign entanglements,” Weinberger’s statements made sense.

Arguably the first real test of this doctrine came in 1989 with  Operation Just Cause.  But later during the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, the media coined the phrase “the Powell Doctrine” to describe the JCS Chairman’s application of the Weinberger doctrine.  When asked if Kuwait was worth going to war for, Powell made the case by outlining the “test” for such intervention.  In addition to Weinberger’s points about national interests, objectives, and national support, Powell added some additional criteria, putting a military planner’s eye on the action:

  • Assessment of risks and costs.
  • Defined exit strategy.
  • Consideration of consequences of action.
  • Existence of international support.

Powell stressed repeatedly (and continues to this day as he makes the talk show circuits) that, as Weinberger stated, the use of military force is only a last resort option.

Although heralded as a great victory for the “Powell Doctrine” (by 1991 Weinberger’s links to the policy were downplayed), the Gulf War also showed many cracks in the logic.  By purposely limiting commitments and scope, American leaders found their strategic options limited.  In much the same light as McAurther in Korea and Patton racing to Berlin, history presents a great “what if?” regarding Schwarzkopf and Baghdad in 1991.  But the muse reminds us not to fall into such speculative traps.

But we can say for sure the lessons from the Gulf War’s end were not heeded, if even identified, at the time.  In the following decade, the US sent troops to Somalia, Bosnia, and scores of other places – with all deployments processed through the tests of the Powell Doctrine.  We might debate the earnestness of the Somalia and Bosnian operations at length later.  But here, let us focus on what that doctrine imposed on operations.  Keeping with limitations on force levels, the military planners were unable to keep pace with changes to the political objectives.  Worse yet, the strict adherence to “exit strategies” tied military operations to something akin to a project plan, with only cumbersome allowances for situational changes.  The Weinberger-Powell doctrine fell on its own weight.

After the events of 9/11 the doctrine seemed to take a new tangent.  While many decry the “Bush Doctrine” and consider it at odds with the previous decade of foreign policy stances, I’d point out at the macro-level little actually changed.  Indeed, detached now by nearly ten years, OEF seems to stand within the constraints of the Weinberger guidelines for the use of military force.  In the run up to OIF, of course, unofficially (and denied at least in public) Powell added the “Pottery Barn Rule” to the doctrine, really just amending the “exit strategy” line.  The historian’s question in years to come will be if Rumsfeld’s weekly catch-phrase-laced press conferences outlined real deviations from the existing doctrine, or simply logical applications of the doctrine to a real situation.

But as we have been told for some time now, elections have consequences.  Now a different administration, without the continuity of Powell or Rumsfeld, has committed military force to Operation Odyssey Dawn.  In some regards, the run up to the war – and lets call it what it needs to be called – decision makers and planners consulted the same tests and measured the same criteria as with Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.  What’s different here is the decision makers fixated on the finality of the exit strategy, not heeding the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, gambling on a “early in – early out” win in spite of the lack of firm objectives.  Furthermore planners, who were perhaps reluctant to act in the first place, hedged their bets with a nearly zero physical presence of US personnel in the operation.

No, I’d submit the Powell Doctrine is not dead.  At least not yet.  All we are really lacking is a name to apply against the “Drones are Not Troops” rule.