Commentary

Requiem for the Powell Doctrine

This article was published in the Chicago Tribune, Aug. 11, 2003.

Will Colin Powell retire? That was the question on Washington’s mind earlier this week, as a White House denial followed reports that the Secretary of State had tendered a post-dated resignation to the President. But as the first Marines enter Liberia — and over 2,000 more wait offshore — a better question is, whatever happened to the Powell Doctrine?

Articulated by Gen. Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, the Powell Doctrine was designed to avoid, as Powell once put it, “halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support.” The Powell Doctrine held that military force should only be used if there was a clear risk to national security; that the force used should be overwhelming; and that the operation must have strong public support and a clear exit strategy.

Still sound advice in an even-more dangerous world. But Secretary of State Powell, like the president he serves, apparently has had a change of heart. Secretary Powell endorses the Liberian adventure, which fails the Powell Doctrine Test on all counts. His current views, as expressed in a July 23 interview with the Washington Times, sound, well, half-baked.

In the interview, Powell admitted, “If you ask the question, ‘What is our strategic, vital interest?’ it will be hard to define it that way.” However, he argued, we have “a historic link to Liberia,” an interest in making sure West Africa doesn’t “come apart,” and “an interest in showing the people of Africa that we can support efforts to stabilize a tragic situation.”

In 1992, a more cautious and skeptical Colin Powell warned the public about what could happen when our forces are put in harm’s way with a vague injunction to “do good.” He declared: “We must not… send military forces into a crisis with an unclear mission they cannot accomplish — such as we did when we sent the U.S. Marines into Lebanon in 1983. We inserted those proud warriors into the middle of a five-faction civil war complete with terrorists, hostage-takers, and a dozen spies in every camp, and said, ‘Gentlemen, be a buffer.’ The results were 241 Marines and Navy personnel killed and a U.S. withdrawal.”

Today we’re told by administration officials and others that Liberia won’t be a shooting war. The folks making such assurances are inexplicably sanguine about a military environment characterized by regular attacks on civilians, led by characters with names like “Colonel Bad Bad Thing.” Those who think a Liberian adventure will make for great P.R. ought to contemplate how it will look if U.S. Marines are forced to shoot some of Liberia’s child-soldiers. They ought also to think hard about how many casualties — American and Liberian — they’re willing to endure to stabilize the country.

Some neoconservative commentators, such as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, have criticized America’s tendency to cut and run when humanitarian interventions go awry, as in Somalia, where the deaths of 18 American soldiers in 1993 led to a speedy U.S. withdrawal. According to Boot, the “body bag syndrome” reflected in our hasty exit from Somalia emboldened our enemies and led them to believe that Americans can’t take casualties. But that gets it backwards. The problem isn’t our response to such situations-after all, American “credibility” is an appalling thing to ask a soldier to die for where there’s no national security interest at stake. The problem arises when we send our soldiers on missions that aren’t worth getting them killed for.

The United States has a military already stretched too thin, a genuine threat-at-large in Al Qaeda, and all the trouble it can handle stabilizing Iraq. We can ill-afford a foreign policy that tasks the U.S. armed forces with spreading good throughout the world. Secretary Powell may have abandoned General Powell’s doctrine, but the wisdom it contains has never been more vital.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.