Powell Doctrine: Does the Iraq War Measure Up?

I think it would be worth a closer examination of how well the current Iraq war matches up with the Powell Doctrine, in the 1990s thought to be a much-welcomed bit of “common sense” about how to conduct a war in the post-Vietnam era.


[quote]General Colin Powell made famous the so-called Powell Doctrine as part of the run up to the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

It is also known as the “Powell Doctrine of Overwhelming Force.”

The Powell Doctrine simply asserts that when a nation is engaging in war, every resource and tool should be used to achieve overwhelming force against the enemy. This is the opposite of a proportional response.

The Powell Doctrine is perhaps best illustrated by his quote (as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 Persian Gulf War) about the Iraqi Army:

“First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.”
After victory, the military should leave the field of engagement, rather than staying around as peacekeepers.

It has been argued that the Doctrine follows from principles laid out by Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense and, as such, Powell’s former boss:

Is a vital US interest at stake?
Will we commit sufficient resources to win?
Are the objectives clearly defined?
Will we sustain the commitment?
Is there reasonable expectation that the public and Congress will support the operation?
Have we exhausted our other options?[/quote]

  1. Was a vital US interest at stake? Arguably not. In the wake of an attack by islamic fundamentalist terrorists, Iraq was a tin-pot secular dictatorship that under renewed pressure was turning over documents. Their military was hardly a shadow of its former 1990 self.

  2. Will we commit sufficient resources to win? Apparently not – the attention paid to “fighting war on the cheap” meant that instead of being able to flood trouble areas with troops (much as the NYPD maintains order with its officers), we had to chase about on roads over extended areas of cities and countryside (much as the LAPD tries to put a veneer onto its disorder).

  3. Are the objectives clearly defined? The shifting rationales answer that question quite handily. The American people were first told that this was primarily about WMDs. Other side-effects were mentioned, including a potpouri of “2nd largest oil reserves in the world”, “Saddam’s a bad guy” and big ol’ whoppers about Saddam being behind the 9-11 attacks. As one writer pointed out: We have 150,000 troops in Iraq whose main duty is not to get killed. Who are we fighting now? Who has killed the most U.S. troops to date? Do we even know who is fighting us anymore? The invasion into Iraq has been said to have attracted and inspired new fighters who, given other circumstances, might not have been shooting and getting shot.

  4. Will we sustain the commitment? Good question. Given the answer to No. 5, below, there may be a point where Bush will have to cut and run.

  5. Is there reasonable expectation that the public and Congress will support the operation? With the Republicans turning in on themselves it is highly doubtful. With many Americans being disillusioned about the shifting rationales and outright lies from the administration, the constant claims that we’ve “turned a new corner” in the war, and the failure of the Administration from the start to adequately supply our troops, the polls indicate that most Americans want out. They don’t want out of Afghanistan – they want us out of Iraq.

  6. Have we exhausted our other options? We could have bottled Iraq up for minimal expense (versus the economic and human toll of the war and occupation). We could have normalized our relationship with that tin-pot dictator with an abyssmal human-rights record in the same way that we on a day-to-day basis to business with the PRC, Azerbaijan, Uzbeckistan today and did business throughout Central and South American dictatorships in the past.

A very nice little tutorial on the Powell Doctrine is available at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/teachers/lessonplans/iraq/powelldoctrine_short.html


On balance, I basically agree with you that the Powell Doctrine was not satisfied in Iraq because --in my opinion-- “overwhelming force” was not used/is not being used. If one agrees with me (and you) on this point, then that’s probably about as far as one needs to go in the analysis, given the absolute centrality of the overwhelming force element in the Doctrine.

Given that we can agree on the primary question without getting into your arguments about the reasons for liberating Iraq, I suppose it really doesn’t matter that you, again, fail to address --or even mention-- the primary reason that our military is there. :wink:

“Overwhelming force” as defined through Powell’s Weinbergian lens appears to have interrelated components. It would appear that the failure to have adequately addressed those components could be what has led to the current mess. People might be able to argue that the failure to adhere to one component might not be fatal for a war effort, but a failure on all grounds seems to be a prime foundational error.

Fair point Hobbes, but remember that one of the exact reasons that we did not use overwhelming force was to keep a light footprint and to prevent the Iraqis from becoming dependent on us as say have the Bosnians, Kosovars, etc. There are points for arguing many different ways but there were valid reasons for using the smaller forces.

NEWSFLASH to MFGR (God, I love these expressions!)

The Powell Doctrine is not the only doctrine to have any validity. There are other options you know.

Yes, absolutely. It would clearly be irresponsible for politicians or military planners to take any set checklist/formula articulated at some point in the past and robotically apply it to a given current or future conflict. Any responsible analysis will, of course, consider the characteristics of each conflict/situation, and ask what is appropriate in that particular case.

What I think a lot of people had appreciated is that the Powell Doctine had a nice “no-duh”/common-sense ring to it. It was something that educated people (in and out of the military) rightfully trumpeted as being something that resonated with them in a genuine way.

Of course, to the extent that those “other” schools of thought involve lying to the American people, distancing America from its allies, and an enunciation of invasion goals that changes on a seemingly quarterly basis, perhaps it’s worth revisiting the work of a man so quickly marginalized by the administration he served. “Mission Accomplished”? I don’t think so. “Other” schools of thought probably include responding to 9-11 by launching a war against Mexico and holding monster-car show, but that does not mean that they are appropriate for the greater interests of the American people.

With comparisons already being drawn between the seemingly aimless Vietnam War and the obviously rudderless Iraq War, it is worth pointing out that the Powell Doctrine was specifially thought up to avoid what Powell saw as being the prime problems that had beset the Vietnam War.

Leaving aside the usual hyperbole and other over-the-top rhetorical silliness, I agree with you that the Powell Doctrine generally constitutes a sensible set of guidelines. As I mentioned above, I think most of us agree that it would be mistake to look at Colin Powell’s pronouncements as some kind of infallable mythic military Ten Commandments – but I generally agree with you that his observations are useful and well-reasoned.

What commandments do you think is ordering the current war? If not one of the 6 Powell-Weinbergian inter-reliant supporting legs of the Powell Doctrine is present, then one might as well be discussing how “other” ideas involve a deliberate choice to start fighting wars with inadequate strength, without maintaining the consent and support of Congress and the public, without clear objectives, and so on.

Keeping in mind that the decision to invade Iraq was not thrust upon us – say in the form of a Pearl Harbor or a declaration of war by a foreign power – then we should have had our thinking caps on. One of the things commentators repeatedly pointed out was how Bush was such a “leader” for deciding to go into what everyone knew to be a purely optional war – a war started in a situation in which war was not our only option. In the America I grew up in, getting us into a war is one of the most serious decisions a president can make. (Hey, weren’t declarations of war supposed to be a Congress sort of thing??)

To fail on one or two counts could be expected, but for a war to utterly fail every step is pathetic. Sure, if a spouse hands one a shopping list you might get away with buying Jif instead of Skippy peanut butter… you might be able to explain that the store was plumb out of nice-enough bananas today, but it is plain sloppy husbanding to come home with a half-empty box of condoms and lipstick on your collar.

High props as usual for your creative way of puting things, MFGR :laughing: :notworthy:

As for the shopping list, I’d say they were satisfied/not satisfied as follows (on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest):

  1. Check. 9/10

  2. Fail. 3/10

  3. Fail. 4/10 – Bush (or his team) did not trust that the American people would accept/understand the real reason for the war – to reshape the middle east --over a period of decades-- to help reduce the the anger and violence in a long oppressed people that was (a) generated by their dictators (often with US support), and (b) successfully turned, sometimes legitimately, sometimes through progaganda, religous brainwashing/bigotry and otherwise… on the US. They decided to use WMD as the reason instead – and they appear to have been too quick to believe without investigation the intelligence data that they wanted to hear. Although they discovered that Saddam was 6 months away from producing his chemical weapons, that was not enough – and public support began to erode. Sadly, I suspect that this may well play a role in the outcome of 4 and 5, below, as well.

  4. I guess we’ll see: it will mostly be up to the American people, the Iraqi people, and the people of other coalition countries.

  5. I guess we’ll see: it will mostly be up to the American people.

  6. Check. 8/10 – we tried coddling, tolerating, and indeed actively supporting middle eastern dictators (including Saddam himself) for decades, in the hope that the horrible suffering of their people would never actually harm the US. It did. It was time for a new approach.

I know you don’t agree with my evaluation. In particular, I know you don’t agree with 1 and 6. Obviously these are topics which each have their own threads (generally several threads) on this board – so I’ll leave them there. As I said, I agree with you that the Powell Doctrine was not followed. Whether the action that was taken was correct or not, is a of course a much larger question.

"Fair point Hobbes, but remember that one of the exact reasons that we did not use overwhelming force was to keep a light footprint and to prevent the Iraqis from becoming dependent on us as say have the Bosnians, Kosovars, etc. There are points for arguing many different ways but there were valid reasons for using the smaller forces. "

The reasons for using the smaller forces so we were told was that in the case of Iraq the Iraqis were going to welcome US troops with garlands and the requirement for overwhelming force was unnessasary. One would have to think someone made a misjudgement somewhere. The Powell doctrine though of overhwlming force isn’t to win the ground war but to win the peace and in that way allow for a seemless withdrawl.

Paul Bremer was one of the people who spoke up to say (looking back at his time in charge of the CPA) that if we had the troops necessary to really secure/police the streets, he felt we wouldn’t have had the sort of fertile ground for the sorts of subsequent insurrection.

Of course, it also would have helped if Rummy hadn’t had such a cavalier attitude toward the looting, lawlessness, etc.

How exactly do more troops work when fighting an insurgency? Anyone have any examples of where more was better in this particular situation?

If you go with the Powell Doctrine’s idea of overwhelming force (and with Paul Bremer’s own assessment of the Iraq situation), there would be no power/control vaccuum if you smash right in and flood the place with troops. Thus, no real opening or opportunity for an insurgency to get underway.

As one of the senior officers pointed out right after we got into Baghdad, with the Iraqi army having shed their uniforms (but, by and large having kept their arms), effectively it was our troops who were “surrounded” by the Iraqi army.

That statement illustrates an astonishingly high level of ignorance, even for you.

To an insurgents and or terrorists, more troops simply mean more targets. :unamused:

I didn’t realize that you had such a profound lack of respect for Bremer’s experience running Iraq. For a man with as many months directly working with the Iraq situation, one would think we could all accept that his viewpoint was not just Monday-morning quarterbacking.


[quote]The former U.S. official who governed Iraq after the invasion said yesterday that the United States made two major mistakes: not deploying enough troops in Iraq and then not containing the violence and looting immediately after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, administrator for the U.S.-led occupation government until the handover of political power on June 28, said he still supports the decision to intervene in Iraq but said a lack of adequate forces hampered the occupation and efforts to end the looting early on.

“We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness,” he said yesterday in a speech at an insurance conference in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. “We never had enough troops on the ground.”[/quote]

It’s sad to see even guys like Bremer, whom I think most Americans can have a bit of respect for based on his hard work under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, get turned on for the purpose of cheap partisan shots. I guess the Republicans don’t really have much to do these days other than to feed off each other. Et tu, Tigerman? Do you really need to state that Bremer’s viewpoint is “ignorant”?

Oh for pete’s sake… I can respect the man for his hard work and service to country without agreeing with him. If in your view, disagreeing with a person amounts to “turning on” a person… well, you are a bit of a drama queen…

Yes. I think his viewpoint, and yours, that more troops would have resulted in fewer instances of insurgency and terrorism is ignorant. :unamused:

Again, any evidence that more troops on the ground is the most effective way to fight an insurgency?

So, what sort of experience or knowledge do you have to back up your assertion that Bremer’s view is “ignorant”. You want to dismiss the guy as “ignorant”, despite him being probably the best expert on the inside reality of trying to run Iraq after the invasion. Oh, pray tell, what insight have you gained from your months as one of the 101st Fighting Keyboardists? What combat experience are you drawing upon that Bremer must now fall within your sights? Perhaps we’ll yet see you pinned with a Distinguished Typing Cross with poison-ivy cluster!

And Fred, you’re missing the point again. Use of the Powell Doctrine would have been intended to result in no insurgency. One of the side comments Powell has on this is how to win a war and get the troops out in a jiffy. Of course, if one wishes to fight a war in a namby-pamby sort of way with inadequate troops to, perhaps, test alternate theories of how to replicate the Vietnam experience, then one might well find an insurgency has cranked up to take advantage of the open opportunity.

Reason. Just reason.

No, I am only dismissing his opinion that more troops would have prevented the insurgency as “ignorant”. Please try to read more carefully.

It doesn’t take any experience in particular to understand that more soldiers on the ground amount to more targets for the insurgents-terrorists. I would have thought that even you could grasp this simple notion.