A Second Look at the Powell Doctrine


Twenty years ago, I found the Powell Doctrine profoundly flawed as a codification of false lessons from Vietnam.  I was also concerned about the civil-military relations precedent of the Nation’s senior military leadership establishing conditions for why, where and how military force should be employed.   Now, in light of Iraq and Afghanistan, the benefits of this doctrine are far more apparent.

The Powell Doctrine’s origins can be traced to the Vietnam War.  The first iteration was not in fact directly authored by General Powell: rather, it was Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s 1984 suite of criteria for policymakers contemplating the use of U.S military power.  Weinberger, (presumably with the advice of General Powell who was an assistant to the Secretary at the time) reduced the Pentagon’s painful lessons from Vietnam into a set of conditions for proper employment of   America’s combat power.  The Weinberger Doctrine reflected a dominant strain in the U.S. military culture, a wariness about incompetent civilian leaders too carelessly employing America’s sword for dubious causes in protracted or ambiguous contingencies.

Buoyed by the successful application of overwhelming decisive force in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but facing continuous pressure for humanitarian intervention in the Balkans and a rising famine in Somalia, Colin Powell updated Weinberger’s guidance.  The first version of what is now known as the Powell Doctrine was in the 1992 National Military Strategy, which reflected purported lessons from the Gulf War.  The unique element was the concept of Decisive Force:

Once a decision for military action has been made, half measures and confused objectives exact a severe price in the form of a protracted conflict which can cause needless waste of human lives and material resources, a divided nation at home, and defeat.  Therefore one of the essential elements of our national military strategy is the ability to rapidly assemble the forces needed to win—the concept of applying decisive force to overwhelm our adversaries and thereby terminate conflicts swiftly with minimum loss of life.

The haunting specter of Vietnam appears in the references to “protracted conflict” and the “divided nation at home.”  The military’s frustrations with Vietnam and the tragic mission in  Beirut  and the loss of 241 Marines, Sailors and Soldiers in 1983 are just as clearly demonstrated in the phrase “half-measures and confused objectives.”  Like the Weinberger Doctrine, an implicit foundation of the concept was a belief that force should only be used with the firm commitment of the nation.  Also included is the Weinberger criterion of using force to “win” quickly and decisively.

General Colin Powell again articulated his perspective with greater fidelity in a major essay published in Foreign Affairs.  He laid out the considerations that he believed senior leaders needed to define and satisfy prior to employing military force.

1. When the objective is important and clearly defined.

2. When all nonviolent means have failed—only as a last resort.

3.  When military force can achieve the desired political objective.

4.  When the costs and risk are acceptable, in terms of expected gains.

5.  When the consequences have been thought out.

General Powell’s template did not sit well with some critics.  Mr. Les Aspin, one time chairman of the HASC derided this codification of wisdom as the “all or nothing school of force.” Then- Secretary of State George Schultz had problems with the idea of “checklists” in diplomacy, and felt that great powers cannot be Hamlets when it comes to wielding power. Many observers including myself felt that the doctrine reflected a reluctance to get involved in anything less than all-out conventional conflicts.  The New York Times editorial staff opined the Pentagon should offer a range of options more sophisticated than off or on, stay out completely or go in all the way to total victory.”

I penned my own reservations twenty years ago in the Marine Corps Gazette and Strategic Review as well as, later, in my book Decisive Force: The New American Way of War? I was concerned that few situations would meet all the criteria for employing force effectively, and that our influence and diplomacy would be adversely affected.  I was equally concerned about the impact on civil-military relations of senior military officers prescribing conditions about when, why and where military force should be employed.  The notion that senior military officers, serving officials, would pronounce conditions rather than advise on how to best employ force effectively was troublesome.

Moreover, the Powell Doctrine was largely irrelevant to the kinds of conflicts we could have expected in a Post-Cold War era wracked by anarchy and contingencies that did not match the Gulf War paradigm.  I would go on to note in 1996:

Future conflicts will most likely resemble Beirut, Panama, and Somali.  It would behoove the Pentagon to dust off the “lessons learned” files on these case histories.  A pattern of small-scale operations in future conflicts is fairly certain. The U.S. military must be prepared for engagements in situations of uncertainty and ambiguity, for such are the conditions of small wars.

My concern on this particular point was not unique.  In his superb history of America’s small wars, Max Boot deconstructed the existing military culture of the U.S. armed services and its preference for conventional opponents.  His The Savage Wars of Peace demolished the myths behind calls for overwhelming force tied to the seemingly sweeping success of Operation Desert Storm.  Boot, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, peeled back the many inconsistencies in the so-called Powell Doctrine and highlighted its limitations in light of a security environment marked by small but violent conflicts.

Even Vietnam veterans like James Webb have come to recognize the limitations of the Powell checklist.  “The Powell Doctrine was little more than a best case scenario for situations where the U.S. could respond at its own discretion,” Webb has noted, “using a schedule of its own choosing, against an enemy whose military makeup allowed such a response.”

But General Powell was only representing the prevalent attitudes and the predominant lessons drawn by America’s military after the costly debacle in Vietnam.  General Powell captured the Vietnam-era frustration of his peers when he commented in his memoirs that “when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support.”  Rather than drawn out contests for limited aims, we should, in the words of Samuel Huntington, be “Playing to win.”

While many feel that the Powell Doctrine was little more than the codification of the fears of his Vietnam veteran generation, others strongly believe that they represent a dose of both realism and common sense.  The considerations he offered, however, are still debatable looking back at the last decade of war.  Let’s take a look at each of them.

Clearly Defined Objectives and Winning.  Of course, in modern conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, it has proven difficult to define or gain a consensus on what “winning” looked like.  The objectives laid out were important, but not necessarily clearly defined enough to the military which focused on the Taliban and let Bin Laden escape in Afghanistan.  Of course, in Iraq, the military believes it was assigned clear and attainable objectives, but it is not clear that the right objectives were assigned beyond the capture of Baghdad or Saddam.  Obviously, both the President and the military prematurely claimed “mission accomplished.”    Furthermore, it was not clear that the political and military objectives were consistently evaluated over time.  It took the great “surge” debate to resolve the policy/strategy gap in both missions, and match it with the required resources.  This reinforces one of Weinberger’s earlier points that objectives need to be evaluated, they are not fixed.

Force as Last Resort for Vital Interests.  It is fairly evident that the initial campaign in Afghanistan was in the defense of America’s vital interests, and that diplomatic efforts were exhausted.  Force was a last resort and was morally justified.   But this aspect of the Powell doctrine is utterly at odds with the thinking of Prussian educator Clausewitz who explicitly views the military instrument as a tool of policy, one that cannot be thought of as something autonomous from its objectives and controlling factors.  Clausewitz was   very much aware that most wars are not initiated for unlimited means or when the survival of the state is at risk, which is why he distinguished so carefully between limited and absolute warfare.  The idea that force can only be employed when the most vital interests of the state are at risk violates any rational correlation between ends and means, or cost effectiveness.   We cannot artificially separate the threat of force from our diplomacy, without undercutting it and thereby increasing the odds that force will be needed.  Waiting to use force as a last resort only increases the costs and violence of a conflict.

When Military Force Can Obtain Desired Results.  This is sometimes used to limit the use of  our military instrument until all other measures have been tried and have failed, or to exclude military forces from conducting humanitarian missions or nation-building tasks more suited to other agencies.  We cannot allow the military to designate scenarios where it believes military force cannot be optimally employed, nor should we restrict its use to only those situations within the military’s comfort zone.  Superpowers must be able to do windows and mountains when and if needed.

This rule is often used to avoid messy contingencies that some military professionals feel is better suited for other government agencies.  The application of military force is a rather blunt instrument but it can be flexibly applied to more than just conventional warfare.  The professional of arms should not constrain policymakers from options that obtain desired political results in conflicts that are outside the preferred portion of the conflict spectrum.

The necessity of the invasion of Iraq will remain controversial for some time.  Existing intelligence, augmented by numerous foreign sources, suggested that Hussein’s designs on weapons of mass destruction could not be contained.  Subsequently, we found out that his programs were largely inactive.  Yet, the lesson remains, waiting for the enemy to make the first step and for diplomacy and sanctions to run their course could have been very risky.

Use Decisive (or overwhelming) Force With the Intent of Winning.  The fourth legacy from Vietnam is a strong belief that U.S. military forces should be employed decisively.  Behind this is the implied thesis that U.S. forces were not permitted to win in Vietnam because of political constraints imposed by civilian authorities in Washington.  In the aftermath of Desert Storm, some Vietnam veterans derided the notion that military forces were to be employed “merely to achieve a political objective.”

Of course, Clausewitz is still spinning in his grave over the last phrase.  The intent of “winning” in a purely military sense may no longer be as relevant as it used to be, but it still remains to our military culture a more legitimate objective for putting troops into the crucible of combat.  Yet, some critics still believe that the Bush Administration failed to apply an adequate amount of force in both campaigns, despite ambitious designs for regime modification.

Do Not Commit Forces Without Popular Support.  Another popular mythological conclusion from Vietnam is the belief that the war was lost at home because we ignored the third leg of Clausewitz’s trinity—the people.  But Clausewitz realized that public support goes both ways.  The government needs to elicit national support from the people when it is necessary.  Sometimes when the political objective is not large, he noted, public support must be stimulated.

The fear embedded in this alleged lesson is that Americans cannot fight a long war.  Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom have laid that myth to rest.  But the real lesson is more accurately reflected in the conclusion that protracted and inconclusive ground warfare will not command public support indefinitely.  Above all, Americans remain pragmatic.  To provide support, Americans must sense that the results are commensurate with the costs of involvement.  The population seems to be willing to sustain major involvements, if convinced that the results are worth the effort.  What pragmatic Americans cannot support is a major involvement over a long term without concrete progress.  Ultimately, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the needed perception of concrete progress faltered.

When the Consequences Have Been Thought Out.  Reflecting a belief that liberal interventionists had dragged the military into too many acts of reflex based on naïve or idealist values instead of cold calculation.  Both Afghanistan and Iraq suggest that political forces, lack of cultural knowledge, and sheer ignorance cannot be factored out.  As Churchill said long ago, when one signs up for war, one needs to expect that “Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant Commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant Fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations—all take their seats at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war.”  War is an iterative competition against an opposing will.  While the consequences of anticipated actions needs to be considered, the fundamental nature of war precludes precision.

There was benefit derived from the debate surrounding the creation of both doctrines.   While contested originally, both doctrines led to a debate that was undoubtedly beneficial in some crises like the Balkans and Africa. While the doctrines dodged or mistook lessons from Vietnam, the Weinberger/Powell doctrine helped prepare a generation of potential policymakers.  Some senior policymakers, like Vice President Cheney or former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, chafed at the timidity and restraints on American power suggested by the conditions detailed in both Weinberger’s and Powell’s lists.  Such guidelines were offered by some as a means of constraining liberal interventionism for purely humanitarian reasons in the Balkans and elsewhere.

Even if imperfect, the guidelines do serve a useful purpose.  Their ultimate purpose was to ensure that fundamental questions about purpose, risk and costs were addressed up front.  While their formulation was obviously flawed given the world we now know we live in, the intent behind their development was neither mendacious nor without merit.  As Operation Iraqi Freedom shows, it is still possible for experienced leaders to come to very wrong policy decisions regarding the employment of force, which is ultimately a blunt tool.  Rosy assumptions, unasked questions and unexplored options have marked the path to some 5,300 graves over the past decade.

The decision to go to war is a very serious exercise. The virtue of some set of questions to assist policymakers in this most supreme judgment retains great value.

Future crises and war plan debates should be more deliberate and discriminate. Rather than denounce the “use of force” considerations that should have constrained action without contemplation, I agree with Reading University’s Patrick Porter, who argues that we should celebrate such doctrines.  Better yet, we should update them in light of what we think we have learned from a long war.

With hindsight, the last two wars suggest that General Powell was not wrong in wanting a more deliberate approach to the Supreme Judgment.  I can give you over 5,300 reasons why Powell’s series of questions have enduring value in some form.  It’s fashionable to criticize his doctrine now, including by highly respected historians like Hew Strachan. But the last decade, at a cost of 5,300 killed and nearly 40,000 seriously wounded, requires me to rethink my book from a less academic perspective.  Today’s warriors can take some solace in the fact that America’s performance in Iraq and Afghanistan was honorably conducted.  They can also draw a measure of satisfaction that clear national interests were gained, and that both countries were given the opportunity to unshackle themselves from their dark histories.  But they can also question the underlying wisdom of the nation’s policy and strategies.  Certainly the cause was again noble, even if the calling was flawed or poorly conceived.  Hopefully our policy and strategy community will learn something from this.


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks.  He currently serves as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University.  This article reflects his own views, and does not represent the policies or position of the National Defense University or Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Expert Infantry (although one of our readers claims it was a U.S. Navy photo that she took).