Ballot Box

Doctrine, Heal Thyself

According to a report that first appeared in the New York Times, senior figures in the Bush administration disagree about how extensive our war on terrorism ought to be. At the hawkish end of things is Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, who is said to be arguing for a broader assault that would include among its targets Saddam Hussein. At the dovish extreme is Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has stressed the diplomatic groundwork to be laid in advance of any military response. We do not know what kind of military option Powell favors, but if he disagrees with Wolfowitz, he presumably prefers a more limited strike against Osama Bin Laden’s terror network inside Afghanistan. Signs about where George Bush comes down in the debate have been ambiguous. Rhetorically, Bush’s pledge to defeat “every terrorist group of global reach,” sounds closer to Wolfowitz. But statements by Vice President Dick Cheney downplaying Iraqi involvement in the World Trade Center atrocity hint at an official line closer to Powell’s view.

Powell’s advocacy of a more limited war against terrorism squares with the views he expressed during the previous Bush administration and his attitude toward military intervention in general. The “Powell Doctrine”–a term first used by Bob Woodward in a 1990 Washington Post article about the Desert Shield deployment in advance of the Gulf War–stands for the idea that the United States should intervene militarily only as a last resort and only then with overwhelming, decisive force. This doctrine was supposed to provide an analytic framework for deciding when America should and shouldn’t start shooting in the post-Cold War world.

In fact, the case for infrequent use of massive force was originally described as a “Cheney-Powell Doctrine.” It became Powell’s alone when the then-Joint Chiefs chairman and the then-secretary of defense split over the Gulf War. Powell, for whom Vietnam has been a deep and lasting influence, argued for giving economic sanctions and diplomacy more time to work before responding militarily to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Cheney’s contrary view, in favor of an immediate and large-scale military assault on Saddam’s army, carried the day. Powell was also an advocate of ending the war after only 100 hours, without removing Saddam Hussein from power. In that case, his view prevailed. In subsequent episodes, Powell was typically on the side of non-intervention. Before he retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he even took the unusual step of arguing publicly against the commitment of U.S. forces in Bosnia.

Powell worked out a theoretical underpinning for his anti-interventionist views in an article in the winter ‘92-’93 issue of Foreign Affairs. “When force is used deftly–in smooth coordination with diplomatic and economic policy–bullets may never have to fly,” he wrote. “Pulling triggers should always be toward the end of the plan.” A few paragraphs later he added, “If force is used imprecisely or out of frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse.” Most notably, Powell offered a series of criteria for deciding when to use military force. He wrote that relevant questions include:

Is the political objective we seek to achieve important, clearly defined and understood? Have all other nonviolent policy means failed? Will military force achieve the objective? At what cost? Have the gains and risks been analyzed? How might the situation that we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further and what might be the consequences?

These six questions set a high bar for military involvement. Applied retrospectively to major military actions the United States has been involved in over the past dozen years or so, they seem to permit only the incursion into Panama to capture the dictator Manuel Noriega and possibly the liberation of Kuwait. But as noted, Powell argued for delay in the latter instance on the grounds of his second question–that nonviolent means had not yet failed.

It may be worth noting that Powell himself has not been entirely consistent in applying his own criteria. At the very end of the first Bush administration, Powell supported the use of American soldiers in a humanitarian effort to stop a mass famine in Somalia. That action arguably met his standards because the risks to American forces were very low. But Powell, according to various journalistic reports such as this unfriendly one in the New Republic, subsequently supported the doomed effort to capture the Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid. There’s no way to square that mission, in which the use of insufficient force led to the gory deaths of 18 American rangers, with the Powell Doctrine. But despite this inconsistency, the Somali debacle bolstered the Powell Doctrine. In the wake of Somalia, it took on an unofficial seventh qualification: that when going in militarily, America needed to have an “exit strategy” for getting back out again. It’s fair to say that this modified version of the Powell Doctrine was essentially George W. Bush’s platform position on the use of force when he ran for president in 2000.  

Of course, the test of any fixed principle is not how it deals with what has already happened but how well it applies to the unforeseen and unexpected. Can the Powell Doctrine guide us in responding to a brutal attack on our country by a non-state enemy? Let’s see what happens when we ask Powell’s six questions in the context of the war against terrorism that President Bush declared in his Sept. 20 speech to Congress.

1. Is the political objective we seek to achieve important, clearly defined, and understood?

Bush said that the war “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” I think that statement meets Powell’s criteria for importance, clarity, and comprehension, even though it’s not an entirely realistic goal.

2. Have all other nonviolent means failed?

In the case of the Taliban, the answer is probably yes. No amount of diplomacy or economic sanctions are likely to prompt a crackdown on Osama Bin Laden’s cadres by the current Afghan regime. In the case of several other states that have supported terror in the past, however, we have not exhausted diplomatic and nonviolent means. So Powell’s second condition allows a military attack on Afghanistan, but not elsewhere, at least not yet.

3. Will military force achieve the objective?

Here the war as Bush has defined it fails Powell’s test, not because military force won’t work, but because the answer can’t be known in advance. Analysts often note that two superpowers–Great Britain the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th–abandoned Afghanistan in defeat. And our political objectives in this war go well beyond whatever is required in Afghanistan.

4. At what cost?

Again, we fail Powell’s test because there’s no way of estimating the human or economic cost of the war. Strategic bombing and military support for the Northern Alliance might accomplish the objective of finishing off Bin Laden and rooting out his al-Qaida organization with few American casualties. But if our goal requires a ground invasion of Afghanistan by American troops, we might take massive losses.

5. Have the gains and risks been analyzed?

They haven’t been analyzed in the cost-benefit sense that Powell means. There’s no way to know in advance whether military force will justify any losses in terms of protection from terrorism, or even whether fighting back will make us safer from terrorism at all.

6. How might the situation that we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further and what might be the consequences?

We fail Powell’s test once more, because this question, like the previous three, is unanswerable in advance. Military intervention by the United States might undermine moderate Arab governments. It could cause massive damage to our economy. It could leave us as an occupying power in one or more Muslim countries. Or it might not do any of these things. We fail Powell’s test, because we can’t see around any of these corners.

More precisely, it is Powell’s test that fails us. The military effort we are soon to launch commands near-universal popular support despite the fact that the Powell Doctrine counsels against it. And the secretary of state himself surely advocates at least a limited military strike, which–failing some tortured argument that his article never meant what it said–constitutes a tacit acknowledgement on Powell’s part that his “questions” are no longer of much relevance.

After Sept. 11 that’s about the most charitable thing you can say about the Powell Doctrine. It’s simply non-applicable, null and void. In drawing it up, Powell was evidently thinking about recent dilemmas, such as Vietnam, Lebanon, Panama, and Bosnia. What we face now is less like those optional interventions and more like the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War. Like those conflicts, this one was thrust upon us. Likewise, its course is unknowable in advance. We understand that we must win but can’t be certain that we will. Despite the sweeping objectives Bush declared in his speech, it’s too soon to propose a realistic definition of victory. We have no way to estimate the costs the fight might entail or to weigh those costs against uncertain benefits. At the moment we’re seeking an entrance strategy, not an exit strategy.

This is a war that has already left us with enormous casualties, even before we strike back. One of the minor ones was Gen. Powell’s neat little theory.

Photograph of Colin Powell on Slate’s Table of Contents by William Philpott/Reuters.