Michael A. Cohen: The Powell Doctrine's Enduring Relevance





[Michael A. Cohen is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, where he runs the Privatization of Foreign Policy Initiative.]

Once upon a time, there was a grand and influential foreign policy doctrine. It was based on some traditional notions about U.S. statecraft that placed severe constraints on when America went to war. It asserted that when the United States used military force, it must do so in overwhelming fashion and only in the service of vital national interests. For any military action, it counseled the dispassionate weighing of costs and benefits, recommended that policymakers have clear, realistic and achievable political objectives, and called for the strong support of the American people and a clearly defined exit strategy.

This doctrine was called the Powell Doctrine, and it was based, in large measure, on a long-simmering debate in the military about how, when and where the United States should use force. While many in the military thought it was great, a lot of other folks hated it.

Liberal hawks were none too pleased because it precluded humanitarian interventions. During the Clinton administration, when then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell (for whom the doctrine was named) argued forcefully against military adventurism to stop the bloodletting in the Balkans, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright demanded, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

For neoconservatives, the Powell Doctrine was anathema because it precluded the sort of wars of choice and the muscular military strategy that they favored. Adherence to the Powell Doctrine made the notion of transformative military conflict virtually impossible.

In the 1990s, the liberal interventionists worked to soften the Doctrine's hard edges. While they abided by the notion that the United States must avoid long, drawn-out conflicts, they advocated utilizing force without clear political objectives, with only fleeting public support, and under a dubious interpretation of the national interest.

In the post-9/11 strategic environment, the Powell Doctrine was cast aside entirely. The subsequent invasion of Iraq violated virtually every one of its tenets. That its namesake, Colin Powell, was serving as U.S. Secretary of State at the time is perhaps the Doctrine's greatest and most disturbing irony.

More than a quarter-century after it first entered the strategic consciousness of the U.S. national security bureaucracy, we don't hear much about the Powell Doctrine anymore. It has seemingly become a precious artifact of a bygone era in U.S. statecraft.

Yet, the lack of attention today to the key attributes of the Powell Doctrine is difficult to understand. After the twin conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan, the more than 5,000 American troops killed, the hundreds of billions -- even trillions -- of dollars spent, it's hard to imagine a strategic doctrine that is more appropriate.

Unfortunately, the lesson seemingly being drawn from these two wars is not that the U.S. must avoid the sort of draining, manpower-intensive and time-consuming counterinsurgency operations that have defined the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the moral of Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be that the United States must learn to fight these types of conflicts more effectively, because they are the future of war.

Meanwhile, the lessons of the Powell Doctrine and a restrained notion of when military force should be exercised are gathering cobwebs in the U.S. strategic toolbox. The time has come, however, to dust off this old war horse, because it is perhaps more relevant and timely than ever...


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