During his tenure as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell elaborated on eight questions he believed should be considered before committing U.S. military forces to war. He contended that unless all eight could be answered in the affirmative, forces should not be committed. The questions, which have since come to be known as the Powell Doctrine, are:
-- Is a vital national security interest threatened?
-- Do we have a clear, attainable objective?
-- Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
-- Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
-- Is there a plausible exit strategy?
-- Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
-- Is the action supported by the American people?
-- Do we have international support?
Besides advocating for such an approach to waging war, Powell believed that once the United States made a decision to commit military forces to combat, it should be done using overwhelming force.
We saw this on display during Operation Desert Storm, when coalition forces routed the Iraqi military in short order.
Following the devastating terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, President George W. Bush adopted a doctrine known as pre-emptive war. It argues that if a perceived enemy is making preparations for an imminent, armed attack against the United States or its allies, a pre-emptive attack to stop them is justified.
Opinions on whether such an attack is legal under international law vary. The president used the doctrine to justify the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction, posing a direct threat to America and her allies.
Many Democrats were shocked when newly elected President Barack Obama reneged on his election campaign promise to end the decade-long fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan continues today, but under pressure from his own supporters and others, Obama finally withdrew all but a small contingent of American forces from Iraq.
Unfortunately, the withdrawal was tied to an arbitrary timeline. Setting an arbitrary date for withdrawing from a combat zone is like publishing an ad in your local newspaper informing would-be burglars that you plan to be away on the coming weekend. The war in Iraq never ended. America’s enemies simply conducted an operational pause to hasten the U.S. withdrawal.
Now, Obama is being encouraged by some in Congress to do something about the deteriorating situation in Iraq. But what can he do?
There is talk of limited airstrikes, but to what end?
Experience has already shown that limited equals meaningless. If Obama were to apply the Powell Doctrine to today’s situation, would he be inclined to employ a military response? You decide.
Is a vital national security interest threatened?
Yes. It can be argued that maintaining stability in this oil-rich country bordering America’s NATO ally Turkey and the unpredictable regional power Iran is vital to U.S. interests.
Do we have a clear, attainable objective?
No. What would be the objective of the limited airstrikes that are being discussed? Who is the enemy? Where is their center of gravity? We simply don’t know.
Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
No. At present, we’re not even sure who the enemy is or what their objectives are.
Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
They most likely have. As the Obama administration has demonstrated time and again, it is thoroughly amateurish when it comes to diplomacy. The president’s botched diplomacy in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Iran and North Korea provide ample evidence of this.
Is there a plausible exit strategy?
No. The president thought he had a plausible exit strategy when he withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq the first time. How will he avoid making a similar mistake?
Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
No, how could they? We presently lack a clear understanding of what is actually occurring on the ground in Iraq, yet the “we-have-to-do-something” attitude is starting to gain traction. Thus, the president recently announced that he is sending 300 military “advisers” to Iraq. In 1955, President Eisenhower ordered about 700 military advisers to South Vietnam in support of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. In 1961, President Kennedy sent about 500 more. By the end of 1962, the number of U.S. forces in South Vietnam was approaching 12,000. Escalation is an inherent risk.
Is the action supported by the American people?
No. Ask the families of the thousands who were killed, wounded or horribly maimed during the war in Iraq. Ask the sick veterans whose names have been placed on secret waiting lists by the Veterans Administration. Ask the veterans who wait years for their disability claims to be adjudicated by the VA. Ask the angry veterans watching everything they fought and bled for in Iraq falling apart.
Do we have international support?
No. America’s NATO allies lost interest in the prolonged war in Afghanistan and withdrew most of their forces.
Where can the president turn for international support? Russia? Iran? China? He has no good options.
Powell initially opposed Bush’s plans to invade Iraq but was eventually persuaded to support it. Later, Powell suggested he allowed himself to be steamrolled by Vice President Dick Chaney into supporting the invasion.
Powell’s failure to adhere to the doctrine bearing his name led to his eventual resignation as secretary of State. Facing the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Obama stands at the threshold of one of the most important decisions of his career. He would do well to pick up the phone and call Powell before finalizing his plan.
Zachary Hubbard, formerly of Johnstown, is a freelance writer and retired Army officer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.