The media have developed a shorthand name for Colin Powell's views on the use of military force: the Powell doctrine. It states in general terms that the United States should not engage in military action without precise goals and clear public support -- and that if it commits to a conventional war, it should use all its resources to accomplish its objectives.
Since Powell became secretary of state nine months ago, many in the media have sought to apply the Powell doctrine beyond the military context that gave rise to Powell's thinking, which suggests that he would resist a war against terrorism. The following excerpts from Powell's 1995 memoir, "My American Journey," show the development of Powell's ideas and provide insight into what the secretary of state might be saying to the president as the Bush administration prepares for an unconventional campaign against an unconventional foe.
War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support; we should mobilize the country's resources to fulfill that mission and then go in to win. In Vietnam, we had entered into a halfhearted half-war, with much of the nation opposed or indifferent, while a small fraction carried the burden. . . . I witnessed as much bravery in Vietnam as I expect to see in any war. . . . All this heroism and sacrifice are precisely the point; you do not squander courage and lives without clear purpose, without the country's backing and without full commitment. . . .
In time, just as I came to reexamine my feelings about the war, the Army, as an institution, would do the same thing. We accepted that we had been sent to pursue a policy that had become bankrupt. Our political leaders had led us into a war for the one-size-fits-all rationale of anticommunism, which was only a partial fit in Vietnam, where the war had its own historical roots in nationalism, anticolonialism, and civil strife beyond the East-West conflict. Our senior officers knew the war was going badly. Yet they bowed to groupthink pressures and kept up pretenses, the phony measure of body counts, the comforting illusion of secure hamlets, the inflated progress reports. As a corporate entity, the military failed to talk straight to its political superiors or to itself. The top leadership never went to the secretary of defense or the president and said, "This war is unwinnable the way we are fighting it." Many of my generation, the career captains, majors and lieutenant colonels seasoned in that war, vowed 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. If we could make good on that promise to ourselves, to the civilian leadership, and to the country, then the sacrifices of Vietnam would not have been in vain.
On Friday, Aug. 3, 1990, the first President Bush convened his National Security Council to discuss the U.S. response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Powell, in his role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended. At one point, he posed a question that seemed to come directly from the vow he had made after Vietnam.
I then asked if it was worth going to war to liberate Kuwait. It was a Clausewitzian question which I posed so that the military would know what preparations it might have to make. I detected a chill in the room. The question was premature, and it should not have come from me. I had overstepped. I was not the national security adviser now; I was only supposed to give military advice. Nevertheless, I had wrestled with the politics and economics of crises for almost two years in the White House, in this very room. I had participated in superpower summits. More to the point, as a midlevel career officer, I had been appalled at the docility of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fighting the war in Vietnam without ever pressing the political leaders to lay out clear objectives for them. Before we started talking about how many divisions, carriers and fighter wings we need, I said, we have to ask, to achieve what end?
After the White House meeting, Powell said, his comments drew a private rebuke from the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney.
Cheney brought up our earlier meeting with the president. "Colin," he said, "you're chairman of the Joint Chiefs. You're not secretary of state. You're not the national security adviser anymore. And you're not secretary of defense. So stick to military matters." He made clear that I had taken liberty for license. I was not sorry, however, that I had spoken out at the White House. What I had said about giving the military clear objectives had to be said.
Powell continued to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs for the first eight months of Bill Clinton's first term as president. Soon after Clinton's inauguration, the national security team met to discuss what action to take in Bosnia.
My constant, unwelcome message at all the meetings on Bosnia was simply that we should not commit military forces until we had a clear political objective. [Defense Secretary Les] Aspin shared this view. The debate exploded at one session when Madeleine Albright, our ambassador to the U.N. [and later secretary of state], asked me in frustration, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about it if we can't use it?" I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board. I patiently explained that we had used our armed forces more than two dozen times in the preceding three years for war, peacekeeping, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance. But in every one of those cases we had a clear goal and had matched our military commitment to the goal. As a result, we had been successful in every case. I told Ambassador Albright that the U.S. military would carry out any mission it was handed, but my advice would always be that the tough political goals had to be set first.
[National security adviser] Tony Lake, who had served on the NSC during the Vietnam war, supported my position. "You know, Madeleine," he said, "the kinds of questions Colin is asking about goals are exactly the ones the military never asked during Vietnam."
The following exchange comes from Powell's Sept. 23, 2001, appearance on "Meet the Press." Host Tim Russert brought up the Powell doctrine and asked Powell about its applicability in a global war against terrorists and the states that support them.
Russert: It's a different kind of war, if we have one, General Powell, as you well know. The Powell doctrine [calls for] using overwhelming force in order to overcome our enemy. General Wesley Clark, who oversaw our operations in Kosovo, said, "We've become allergic to close combat." How different is a war against terrorists in Afghanistan from something you mounted in the Persian Gulf 10 years ago?
Powell: I've never talked about overwhelming force, I've always talked about decisive force, meaning you go to the point of decision and that's where you apply decisive force. In the Persian Gulf War 10 years ago, you had an army sitting out there, easily identifiable, there it was waiting to be attacked, and we applied decisive force against the Iraqi army. It's different this time, and we shouldn't see this in the same context as if there is a large enemy out there that we plan to attack in conventional ways. If the president decides that this is what we should do and have to do, I can assure you that our military will have plans that will go against their weaknesses and not get trapped in ways that previous armies have gotten trapped in Afghanistan.
Russert: Previous wars from the air [had] very limited, if any, American casualties. Do you think the American people would be accepting of large amounts of casualties in order to win this war?
Powell: You know, I have always shied away from this concept that you can fight a war without casualties. It's never been anything that I have put forward. You always want to make sure you can minimize casualties and do everything you can to protect the forces, but war is war and there will be casualties. I think the American people understand that . . . . We can't conduct wars in such a way that we're terrified of putting anyone at risk. War does put people at risk, and it's a risk we have to take in light of the current circumstances. We will always try to conduct all of our military operations in a way that reduces casualties as much as possible, but there is no such thing as a zero-casualty conflict when you're going into a place, say, like Afghanistan.