Should U.S. Revive the 'Powell Doctrine' When Going to War?

By: Kathryn Whitbourne  | 

Taliban fighters stand guard
Taliban fighters stand guard in a vehicle along the roadside in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the group's feared hard-line brand of Islamist rule. AFP via Getty Images

In the run-up to the Gulf War of 1991, U.S. Army Gen. Colin Powell devised a framework to guide U.S. policymakers who were considering using military force in other countries. This framework, which journalists nicknamed the Powell doctrine, was inspired by a similar outline proposed by former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to whom Powell served as senior military assistant. (Powell later became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state.)

In short, the doctrine says that the U.S. should not go to war unless it can say "yes" to the following questions, as listed by Foreign Policy columnist Stephen M. Walt:

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  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?

"War should be the politics of last resort," Powell wrote in his 1995 memoir "My American Journey," as reported by The Washington Post. "And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support; we should mobilize the country's resources to fulfill that mission and then go in to win. In Vietnam, we had entered into a halfhearted half-war, with much of the nation opposed or indifferent, while a small fraction carried the burden."

Powell went on to say, "I witnessed as much bravery in Vietnam as I expect to see in any war. ... All this heroism and sacrifice are precisely the point; you do not squander courage and lives without clear purpose, without the country's backing and without full commitment."

Gen. Colin Powell
Retired Gen. Colin Powell appears on stage during the Capital Concerts' "National Memorial Day Concert" in Washington, D.C. on May 30, 2021.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Capital Concerts

President George H. W. Bush arguably did follow Powell's advice during the Gulf War to a swift victory with a limited goal: driving Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, which they had invaded. But after the events of 9/11, the Powell doctrine fell out of favor, replaced with a more aggressive policy of military intervention for nation-building. And historians and military experts have debated the pluses and minuses of using this doctrine as a guideline for all military endeavors. Indeed, Powell said he supported the decision of President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq. But the fast collapse of Afghanistan and the ensuing chaos says it may be time to give the Powell doctrine a second look.

"While the war in Afghanistan (2001-) met the doctrine's pre-invasion tenets (national security was at stake, non-military methods were attempted, there was broad domestic and international support), it failed to follow the guidelines concerning how the war should be waged," wrote Artur Kalandarov in the fall 2020 issue of Marcellus Policy Analysis . "Instead of utilizing a decisive force size to secure the country after ousting the Taliban – as Powell, then the Secretary of State, advocated for – the U.S. and its allies incrementally increased the troop presence in response to a growing insurgency. In 2002, as the Taliban were recruiting and regrouping, there were a mere 9,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Afghanistan Papers released by The Washington Post showed multiple generations of policymakers failing to evaluate both the military objectives and the exit strategy."

It is perhaps the failure of the latter two points that we have been seeing on display with the events unfolding currently in Afghanistan.

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