Remember the Powell doctrine? Elaborated
by Colin Powell back in 1990, during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, it consisted of a series of questions identifying the conditions that
should be met before committing U.S. military forces to battle. The questions
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
For Powell, each question had to be answered in the affirmative before a
decision to use military force was made. If these conditions were met, however,
Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United
States should then use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory.
Like the closely related "Weinberger doctrine"
(named for Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger), these guidelines
were designed to ensure that the United States did not stumble into pointless
wars whose costs far outweighed the benefits. Powell understood that civilians
often had idealistic or quixotic ideas about improving the world with U.S.
military power and that they were often too quick to employ it without thinking
through the broader strategic implications. One might think of the Powell doctrine
as a checklist designed to curb the well-intentioned but naive desire for
global do-gooding that has inspired American liberal interventionists for
The Powell doctrine also rests on a decidedly realist vision of U.S.
security and grand strategy. Powell's eight questions implicitly recognize that
the United States is an extraordinarily secure country and one that rarely
needs to rush into war to keep itself safe. It is a vision of U.S. strategy
that does not shrink from using force, but only if vital national security interests
are at stake. If they are, then the United States should defend those interests
by taking the gloves off and doing whatever it takes. But most of the time
vital interests are not at stake, and the United States can and should rely on
"other nonviolent policy means." It is a doctrine designed to husband
U.S. power and keep the country's powder dry, so that when America does have to
go to war, it can do so with ample domestic and international support and with
military forces that have not been ground down and degraded by endless
interventions in arenas of little strategic importance.
What do we learn if we apply Powell's principles to the current debate on
Syria? Just ask and answer the questions, giving the administration the benefit
of the doubt. The results are not pretty.
1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The
United States hasn't cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business
with Bashar al-Assad's regime whenever doing so suited it. If it didn't matter
who ran Syria for the past 40-plus years, why does it suddenly matter so much
now? Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a "vital"
interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not
true weapons of mass destruction anyway.
2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can
figure out what the Obama administration's actual objective is -- defend the
chemical weapons norm? reinforce U.S. credibility? weaken the regime a little
but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. -- you have a better microscope
than I do.
3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well,
maybe. I'm sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it
is hard to know how "fully" the risks and costs have been weighed.
But let's be generous and give the administration this one.
4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly.
As I've noted
before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the
Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have
thought this whole issue wasn't important enough to warrant energetic
diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war. And there in a nutshell is
a lot of what's wrong with U.S. foreign policy these days.
5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not
that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger
of a quagmire here, so their "exit strategy" consists of limiting the
U.S. attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to
the rebels. In other words, they are preemptively "exiting" by not
getting very far in. But that also means that intervention won't accomplish
much, and it still creates the danger of a slippery slope. If the action they
are now contemplating doesn't do the job, what then? If credibility is your
concern, won't those fears increase if the United States takes action and Assad
6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It's
hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad's forces won't do that much to
restate any "red lines" against chemical weapons use, and as noted
above, that's a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might
also help bring down the regime, thereby turning Syria into a failed state,
fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist
groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It
may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran,
derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important
goal), and even reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there
any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things
7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no.
Surveys show overwhelming public opposition to military action in Syria. Obama
can boost those numbers with some saber-rattling and threat-inflation (now
under way), but the American people are going to remain skeptical. I suspect
Congress will eventually go along -- for a variety of reasons -- but right now
the idea of going to war in Syria is even
less popular than Congress itself (which is saying something). Bottom line:
This criterion is nowhere near being met.
8. Genuine and broad international support? Not
really. The British Parliament has already voted against military action, and
Germany has made it clear that it's not playing either. Russia and China are of
course dead set against. America's got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and
(quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced,
or co-opted. But it's a far cry from the support the United States had in the
first Gulf War or when it initially entered Afghanistan following the 9/11
attacks. This is not the sort of "genuine and broad" support that
General Powell had in mind.
I draw two conclusions from this exercise. First, the case for military
action in Syria remains weak, and the fact that the United States is barreling
headlong toward that outcome anyway is a powerful indictment of its foreign
policy and national security establishment. Second, Colin Powell was really
onto something when he laid out this framework, and the United States would be
in much better shape today had that framework guided U.S. military responses
for the past 20 years.
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