Back during the first Persian Gulf War, when then-General Colin Powell was making his bones as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (effectively, General Schwarzkopf’s co-leader), he articulated what came to be known as the Powell Doctrine, a statement of strategic military thinking that has been widely quoted and studied and has been admired by many. The ostensible point of the doctrine was to articulate the appropriate conditions precedent to a determination to go to war – in other words, it is a mistake to go to war unless these conditions have been met. CliffNotes version: Do not go to war unless
- The objective is important and clearly defined,
- all nonviolent means have failed,
- military force can achieve the desired political objective (the big one),
- the costs and risk are acceptable, in terms of expected gains, and
- the consequences have been thought out.
The doctrine has had an odd history, with many Republicans treating it as a stirring statement of clear and concise military thinking, while others have thought it deeply flawed – for example, “The Powell Doctrine was little more than a best case scenario for situations where the U.S. could respond at its own discretion, using a schedule of its own choosing, against an enemy whose military makeup allowed such a response.” (This was a statement by erstwhile Senator Jim Webb, a Viet Nam veteran who ultimately argued for legislation to prohibit the use of funds for military operations in Iran without the prior approval of Congress.) A more balanced appraisal of the doctrine has been advanced by Frank Hoffman in “A Second Look At The Powell Doctrine” (War On The Rocks, February 2014), in which he submits that the doctrine should be read as a checklist – things to be considered before going to war. In other words, it is an analytical tool, not a threshold.
Here is a third view. The Powell Doctrine has evolved into a set of conscious or unconscious excuses for a decision to avoid war. And one would not be surprised if it turned out that General Powell is pleased with that outcome, considering the accumulating evidence (including his support of President of Obama) that the General has always been, at heart, both a Democrat and a Rand Paul non-interventionist. Consider the current White House’s numerous decisions that have amounted to a virtual withdrawal of the United States from the international role it has played during most of the latest 100 years. Consider the administration’s actions – and inaction – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iran, Ukraine, and other places where the Arab Spring has turned into an Islamist Winter. Consider our continued coddling of Russia.
The evolving theme of the left is straightforward: No more Viet Nams. No more strategic stalemates. No more “waste” of American resources (human or materiel) except in situations like the First Persian Gulf War where it is likely that we can swoop in and score a quick and decisive victory. No more foreign interventions unless, as in the Powell Doctrine, military force can achieve the desired political objective – i.e., win. No more strategic interventions, where the objective is merely to slow or halt the advance of the enemy – such as contemporary Iran or ISIS, or Russia.
Once again, the conservatives, and indeed the entire country, have been snookered by the left.