The “Powell Doctrine” As Applied to Syria

The “Powell Doctrine”, enunciated by Colin Powell in 1990 during his tenure as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, consisted of eight 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?

Over at FP Stephen Walt attempts to consider the “doctrine” as it applies to Syria. As you might imagine, it’s hard to make the case.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. stonetools says:

    The problem with the Powell Doctrine is that no war the United States has ever been in meets all the criteria-including Gulf War 1.
    It should be remembered that Powell opposed that particular war, but was overruled by President George HW Bush.
    The Powell Doctrine is an unattainable ideal, rather than a standard to be rigidly adhered to.

  2. Donald Sensing says:

    In a way, though, the Powell Doctrine is sort of like the pirate code in Pirates of the Caribbean – “more like guidelines” than ironclad rules.

    But what the heck, here are my answers:

    1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
    Certainly not imminently. That deterring other bad actors from WMD use is a national security interestseems valid, but, as I wrote here,

    As for deterring leaders of other nations, assessing what example to make of Syria to deter them is like entering a dark room blindfolded, in the dead of night in a dense fog, to look for a black cat that may not even be there. Does anyone really expect that the Iranian government will abandon its goal of attaining nuclear capability just because the United States mounted bombing campaign against Syria that the president has already promised would be “brief and limited?”

    2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
    No, the objectives stated by the president, et. al., are pretty fuzzy: leave Assad in power, frighten him into killing people only conventionally, make Iran reconsider its nuclear ambitions. Anyone that those objectives are very clear or obtainable?

    3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
    Not even superficially.

    4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
    At this point there are none to try. But there have been many opportunities over the previous 24 months that were never attempted.

    5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
    It only takes one nation to begin a war (see Dec. 7, 1941, for example). But it takes both warring parties to end it (see, USS Missouri, 1945). Nowhere have I heard the president or anyone else try to define what constitutes the end of the war. Remember, “the enemy gets a vote.” After all, what if Assad goes all Bluto on us?

    6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
    With so many unknowns already listed, it is not possible to answer this question affirmatively.

    7. Is the action supported by the American people?
    I have seen no survey that demonstrates this, nor AFAIK, are any members of Congress who support the strikes saying they think so.

    8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
    Absolutely not. Assad has even already solicited the UN Secretary General for UN protection against American action.

    Let the reader determine whether my answers are valid and if so, what effect they have in the reader’s mind on whether this war may be justly and wisely waged.

  3. Donald Sensing says:

    @stonetools: It should be remembered that Powell opposed that particular war, but was overruled by President George HW Bush.

    As Powell was then serving in uniform, his smackdown that he was not responsible for setting US national policy was entirely appropriate. See here.

    And in fact, Powell devised these eight principles as the result of how well the Gulf War demonctrated their value.

  4. Rob in CT says:

    1. No.

    2. I think no, though I could see someone arguing yes (deter use of chemical weapons).

    3. No, I don’t think so, but then I’m not privy to everything.

    4. There propbably isn’t a non-violent way to deter Assad (or others) from chemical weapons use, though there are non-violent responses (humanitarian) to the general suffering of the Syrian people that have not been exhausted. To the extent war proponents bring up caring for Syrian civilians, this has to be addressed.

    5. Theoretically, if we just lob some missles/bomb some targets, exit is pretty simple. The problem is that the less we do, the less likely it is that our action actual deters Assad or others from chemical weapon use. There is always the possibility of mission creep, particularly when a vague concept like “credibility” is at stake.

    6. This isn’t much different than #3, is it? Anyway, the answer is no. War supporters generally glide right over obvious pitfalls and go straight for emotional appeals.

    7. No.

    8. No, though we’re not entirely on our own.

    I agree that this “doctrine” is an ideal (love the Pirates Code reference, Donald). But if your proposal fails to meet most of the criteria, you’ve got problems.

  5. Franklin says:

    #3 and #6 might seem redundant, but I think that might be because they’re frickin’ important.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    @stonetools:

    The definition of a “strawman argument” is when a distorted or exaggerated version of the opponent’s argument is attacked rather than addressing the actual proposition.

    The “doctrine” is a yardstick rather than a Procrustean bed and is useful for that purpose—evaluating the prudence of military action.

  7. Todd says:

    1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?

    It depends on how we define “vital”

    2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?

    This one is arguable, although I would propose that what’s being discussed in public may not necessarily be the same objective that’s defined in the classified plans.

    3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?

    Again, this is an objective question. Can we prepare for any eventuality that results from our use of military force? Obviously not. But have the most likely 2nd and 3rd order effects been considered? Almost certainly.

    4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?

    One could argue that the threat of military force (as opposed to it’s actual use) is among the most effective non-violent policy means.

    5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

    With the limited engagment that’s being proposed, the answer is obviously yes. We simply stop launching missiles. If there’s any sort of spillover and this becomes a larger regional conflict, then this question becomes much more difficult to answer.

    6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?

    I believe that the consequences of both action, and inaction have been extensively considered.

    7. Is the action supported by the American people?

    Considering that many (if not most) of those who are opposed to this military action probably couldn’t find Syria on an unlabeled (or maybe even a labeled) map, I’m not sure what public opinion polls on this issue are really measuring. In other words, what is the value of people’s opinions about a subject on which they’re not fully (or even rudimentally) informed?

    8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

    Again, sort of depends on how you define “broad”. But at this point, it’s probably a no … but I would expect that could change over time.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    7. Is the action supported by the American people?

    Considering that many (if not most) of those who are opposed to this military action probably couldn’t find Syria on an unlabeled (or maybe even a labeled) map, I’m not sure what public opinion polls on this issue are really measuring. In other words, what is the value of people’s opinions about a subject on which they’re not fully (or even rudimentally) informed?

    You know, the fact that many Americans suck at geography doesn’t automatically mean they cannot evalutate a question like “shall we launch military strikes into a middle-eastern country experiencing a multi-factional civil war because 1 side used chemical weapons?”

    -Rob, who CAN find Syria on a f*cking map.

  9. dazedandconfused says:

    I think he’s got good points, but I wish Walt had not labeled McCain’s desired objective as this administrations. We don’t know if that is the case yet.

    Only two ways this makes sense to me, the administration is trying to rail-road the nation into “fixing” Syria or it’s about bluffing Assad into putting away the chem, perhaps forsaking it. I’m sure Kerry is “full of it”, but it’s hard to tell if he’s BSing the nation into war, BSing the hawks, or BSing Assad.

  10. Pinky says:

    If we’re talking about a surgical strike that would destroy only the Syrian government’s capacity to launch chemical weapons, then I think that points 2, 5, and 8 are covered. It would have a very specific limited objective. There is no “exit strategy” other than fly home, because there is no direct conflict. Most of the world wouldn’t say they’d like us to do this, but there wouldn’t be outcry.

    That’s not to say that I would recommend the strike. I think #4 raises some interesting questions: have we put all the pressure we can on Assad? On Russia? Is there anythnig we can give them behind the scenes that would convince them to not cross this particular line again? Should we be leading peace talks instead?

  11. James Pearce says:

    As far as I can tell, the “Powell Doctrine” never actually became US policy. None of the conflicts we’ve been involved in over the last twenty years have conformed to it and Syria will be no different.

  12. @James Pearce: As far as I can tell, the “Powell Doctrine” never actually became US policy.

    That is correct. Powell offered it up more as a “lessons learned” from the Gulf War rather than a policy proposal.

  13. dazedandconfused says:

    @James Pearce:

    In the Haiti crisis Powell assembled a massive force and gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse. In Somalia, we went in big. Iraq 1, “big” doesn’t begin to describe. Also, we let Saddam slaughter Kurds with barely a peep during Powells years of influence. Isn’t this “all or nothing”?

  14. Tony W says:

    The Powell Doctrine does nothing to further our national interests – namely those of feeding & expanding the military-industrial complex, putting no-bid contractors to work building military stuff, and otherwise siphoning our national treasure to the private sector.

    Thus, it will never be policy.

  15. Todd says:

    @Rob in CT: The map thing wasn’t my point. I don’t feel that I myself have enough information to hold a truly informed opinion on this subject … and I’ve been paying attention.

    As I said in one of the other comment threads, my gut reaction is to be against military action. And if this was a President Romney or McCain, I probably would be. But I don’t think that makes me a hypocrite. Obama, Kerry, and Hagel were all pretty loud critics of of our Iraq involvement. The fact that I honestly believe none of them really wants to get involved in Syria, causes me to be more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt if they say we need to do something.

    They have more information than we do.

  16. William Wilgus says:

    @stonetools: Yes, we should have let the Germans, Italians, and Japanese win. Wie sagan Sie?