The Powell Doctrine lays out criteria for using U.S. military force in international conflicts—but in recent years, the wisdom of the Powell Doctrine has been all but forgotten. Discover how an updated version of the Powell Doctrine could benefit the U.S. military—as well as the international community at large—when you subscribe to World Politics Review.
Chastened by the failure of U.S. military’s might to achieve strategic success in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. observers began to re-examine the wisdom of the Powell Doctrine, a set of criteria for the use of U.S. military force abroad that sets a high and prohibitive bar for any U.S. military intervention—an especially sensitive topic since the days of the Vietnam War. The Powell Doctrine dictates that any U.S. involvement in wars should come with clear, realistic and achievable political objectives—and with strong support from the American people and a clearly defined exit strategy.
Named for Gen. Colin Powell—chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for both George H.W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations and secretary of state during the first term of President George W. Bush—the doctrine asserts that when the United States uses military force, it must do so in overwhelming fashion and only in the service of vital national interests. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, the restraints imposed by the Powell Doctrine were summarily cast aside. Emboldened by a surrounding cadre of neo-conservatives, for whom U.S. involvement in wars was a vital tool of national statecraft, President George W. Bush quickly became a proponent of military intervention and nation-building.
But if the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught us anything, it is that the bar for overseas intervention should remain high. While the future may be unknowable, the criteria by which we use force need not be. The United States must prepare for the conflicts that are not only in the country’s vital interests, but that it can also bring to a satisfactory conclusion. That’s the essence of the Powell Doctrine, and it deserves reconsideration.
America Is More Than a Military Power
From the post-9/11 position that favored American primacy and unilateral interventionism, the debate in Washington swung back toward one of restraint and recognition of the limits of U.S. power. The good news is that most interventions are unnecessary. By any objective measure, the United States is enormously secure—in spite of our overseas military adventures, not because of them. The main lesson to be learned from our recent forays into nation-building should be a greater appreciation for the limits of military power. If anything, our hyperactive foreign policy of the past 20 years has impeded us from spreading the ideas that make this country great. Those are the United States’ true strength, the true source of its power, and they have nothing to do with its military prowess.
Why the Powell Doctrine Can’t Prevent U.S. Military Interventions
Despite the Powell Doctrine’s recent return to relevance, the asymmetric dynamics that hampered U.S. military success in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to be persistent features of any future U.S. involvement in wars or conflicts. There will be a temptation to avoid these future interventions because they don’t meet the thresshold for intervention defined by Powell, but contingencies don’t always conform to strategic theory. Indeed, America has repeatedly tried to swear off large-scale interventions, to little avail. Manpower-intensive stability missions have a peculiar way of finding us, and America may yet blunder into another large-scale stability mission. Claims to the contrary neglect the profound effects of “mission creep,” greatly overestimate our diplomatic acumen, and overlook the fact that some states may simply be too big to fail. As a result, the U.S. will still find itself drawn into wars and conflicts that defy the Powell Doctrine’s tenets.
Guiding Principles for Using America’s Military Might
So if the U.S. wants to continue to benefit from its military superiority, it will have to adapt Powell’s principles, which grew out of a set of principles first articulated in 1984 by then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weingberger, for today’s conflicts. In this dangerous time of shifts in the global security environment, the U.S. badly needs a bipartisan framework to guide the use of military force. Whether this comes from reviving and adapting the Powell/Weinberger principles, or is created from scratch, the need remains and it is urgent.
Could the Powell Doctrine Be Adapted for Improving the Stability of Fragile States?
That could be as simple as America lowering its expectations about what it can realistically do to stabilize and rebuild fragile states. Syria is the extreme example that raises doubts about the feasibility and effectiveness of international interventions to alter conditions in war or improve political environments. But the West’s newfound humility about past failed interventions need not lead to total despair or disengagement. Instead of the Powell Doctrine’s all-or-nothing approach, a less-is-more school of thought can be used to articulate a positive strategy for achievable goals. Spending less taxpayer money with more coherent purpose could, after all, lead to good outcomes, if partners in fragile or post-conflict states themselves have more realistic expectations of the role of the West in their own long, painful but necessary processes of progress and change.
By Hampton Stephens
WORLD POLITICS REVIEW