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.

15 thoughts on “Libya and the Powell Doctrine”

  1. Well, like most doctrine, the Powell doctrine was in many ways honored more in the breach.

    When US forces engaged the Iraqis in 1991 in Desert Storm, Powell very quickly allowed the possibility of a perception to curtail operations.

    US forces were pounding vehicles fleeing Kuwait City via what quickly became known as the “Highway of Death” with airpower destroying huge numbers of vehicles. Truth be told, it was more spectacular than deadly. Lots of vehicles were destroyed, but not nearly as many Iraqis were killed as people seemed to think.

    Powell, concerned that such an interdiction would be seen as “piling on” urged the suspension of offensive action. And somehow, in all that, he didn’t seem to realize that the VII Corps, the coalition’s main effort, was only then coming to grips with the Iraqi’s center of gravity, the Republican Guard’s mechanized and armored divisions.

    This halt lead to the idiocy of letting the only real offensive power of the Iraqis escape to fight another day.

    There’s a strong likelihood that if we had continued for another 48 hours and destroyed the RGC’s main body, we never would have had to invade Iraq in 2003.

    Powell’s mistake in allowing possible political consequences intrude upon military certainties showed an appalling lack of judgment, and left me forever opposed to his elevation to any further position of influence. After all, if it was worth attacking the RGC, it was worth destroying the RGC.

    1. On its face, the Weinberger-Powell approach has some good points. It is for the most part a good common sense approach for the use of force by a democracy. But the problem is that the doctrine works well in the “run up” phases for potential military actions, yet becomes an encumbrance once the bullets start flying. No where does that stand out better than the highway of death example. Concern about the “end state” and possible international reaction lead to a decision that didn’t make sense to someone on the ground.

      I’m no big fan of Powell. I find too many issues from My Lai to Baghdad. Yet I will say he made some good points for decision makers to consider before giving military commanders the orders to go into an operation. Trouble here is application beyond that decision.

    2. I agree that the Wienberger/Powell Doctrine provides a reasonable framework for the decision making process before deployment/war scenario, but as you note, it imposes political constraints on us after hostilities begin.

      But part of the political consideration of the decision to engage in hostilities must be a determination to achieve the political aims of the war in the first place, regardless whether the enemy cooperates, or it imposes short term domestic political costs, or even international costs.

      If the likely potential political costs are too great to justify decisive military action, obviously, the W/P doctrine (or any other sane doctrine) SHOULD say that intervention is not called for.

    1. War has always been, as Bismark noted, an instrument of foreign policy. Such does put the military astride of politics, like it or not. Perhaps such intersections have become more common since WWII, due to the reluctance to engage in unlimited warfare, and the geo-political realities.

      Perhaps a good example of good officers eschewing politics and remaining loyal to their oaths, comes from the the Navy shortly after consolidation of DoD. Not only the “Admirals’ revolt” but beyond that with the work of Arleigh Burke leading into the Korean War.

  2. LC Aggie Sith,

    Einstein, one said, “It is very simple to make things complex and very complex to make things simple.”

    The last I heard, there were places where politics was most definitely, *discouraged*, the list that I knew were the following, Military, Intel and Justice. We all know the politics is involved on the surface levels, but it shouldn’t get into the day to day operations.

    With all due respect, I think you have hit the absolute center of the bull’s-eye. But, the old hag called, “History”, will be the final judge.

  3. Just Aggie,

    I didn’t know your name was ‘Just’, with last lame of ‘Aggie :)’.

    You comment is like a hi-tech weapon of its time, a two edged sword, cuts both ways. The way it impacts on you depends on your own applied code of honor, this is the lesson many of these leaders need to learn on both sides. Sorry, I forgot, I went over the heads of many of our politicians. Code of Honor + Politicians= oil water mix, both sides.

  4. Craig,
    Good overview. I like your analysis here. One discussion point you have raised but not thoroughly delved into, which is the crux of the matter is: what happens when you commit forces in accordance with the Weinberger/Powell doctrine and conditions on the ground change? You talked about the “poltics” of it, but there is, as old Clausewitz said, a trinity of military, political, and civilians. Conditions in any, or all, of these, can change dramatically. I heard GEN Petraeus speak one time and one of his points is that these operations all have a “half-life” in which public and poltical support decline to the point that it may become a poltically untenable operation.

    1. You are correct, for brevity I left out a detailed look at the post Gulf War “engagements” and in particular how the best of intentions and plans can and will go astray. While the Weinberger statement allowed for reevaluation and assessment throughout the operation, my opinion is that decision makers living “in the bubble” of the “today” will always lack the full perspective they will be judged by the next day. Thus the review cycle becomes at best a routine affirmation of the original decision; or in the worst case, an ongoing battle between high-level staff to redirect the operation (as we have seen in some recent events).

      IMO, the decision to send troops into harms way should be accompanied by a “we’ve won” condition not an “exit strategy.” You accomplish the former and we can talk about the later in leisure.

  5. Aggie, if this is the worst haunting you ever get, you are a very fortunate man, SIR.

    IMHO, Weinberger/Powell served within a certain historical timeframe and nothing more. In some ways, history is an asset to be used and in others, it is a millstone around your neck. I think both of these men are still entrapped in Nam. We are still learning lessons from that time and yet, there is so much more to learn.

    Craig, you write an interesting view of the post Gulf War “Engagements”. You make an interesting observation about our “decision makers living in a bubble of today”. Do you think there is a possibility that in some ways, the Military lives in their own bubble? Why? It is the only way to logically survive in that world. What is the impact of the “bubble” on these two groups? Is it at all possible for a distortion of vision to occur inside either bubble?

    But, I think you start to try to fathom out the roots of the dilemma. You write–
    “IMO, the decision to send troops into harms way should be accompanied by a’ we won’ condition not an ‘exit strategy’. You accomplish the former and we can talk about the latter in leisure.”

    This is well done, but let’s look at it and break that dang bubble. Craig, just relax for a moment. Many people would look at that and say that you are infringing on the “Powers of the President of the US, in his role as CnC.”. Ever since Korea, there is a basic principle that we, as a Nation, have put on the shelf. Personally, I believe it has had a very bad impact on the troops and then expands to the whole force. Emphatically, I am not talking about a draft! I would like to take a look at our post 9/11 Nation. Let’s start with a look at that horrible Tuesday, everybody was in shock. Did you notice something? The Nation came together as one, we had been attacked! Is that not true? How did we respond? I believe history gives us a guideline. We have the right to defend ourselves. It is that moment in time that there’s only one thing that really stands and that is The Flag of the United States of America, then our Oath to the US Constitution and what it says. The process of going to war is not an action just by POTUS. The President is not the one going to war, it’s the Military. When our 43rd President spoke to the Nation, they should have asked for a formal Declaration of War. He should not have told the civilian population to just go shopping. He should have explained the sacrifice we would be making. To add insult to injury, we had the infamous “bank bailout” and the bank executives hit their “golden parachutes”. I firmly believe the government should do some “claw backs with palms up”, this was a misappropriation of• government money. This money was not the banks’ money, but government money, therefore not governed by pre-agreed upon contract, i.e. pensions and retirement. If we go to war, we ALL go to war, in one way or another. Grumpy, is it too late to start this? In my view, absolutely not. To those of you, who have had the courage and compassion to help the troops and their families, I believe history will say, “These are truly American Patriots, in action.”

  6. Aggie

    Oops, It’s time for Grumpy to open his mouth and change feet.

    Sorry, about that,

Comments are closed.