by Stephen M. Walt
September 7, 2013 (TSR) – Remember the Powell doctrine? Elaborated by Colin Powell back in 1990, during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it consisted of a series of questions identifying the conditions that should be met before committing US military forces to battle.
The questions were:
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?
For Powell, each question had to be answered in the affirmative before a decision to use military force was made. If these conditions were met, however, Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should then use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory.
Like the closely related “Weinberger doctrine” (named for Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger), these guidelines were designed to ensure that the United States did not stumble into pointless wars whose costs far outweighed the benefits. Powell understood that civilians often had idealistic or quixotic ideas about improving the world with US military power and that they were often too quick to employ it without thinking through the broader strategic implications. One might think of the Powell doctrine as a checklist designed to curb the well-intentioned but naive desire for global do-gooding that has inspired American liberal interventionists for decades.
The Powell doctrine also rests on a decidedly realist vision of US security and grand strategy. Powell’s eight questions implicitly recognize that the United States is an extraordinarily secure country and one that rarely needs to rush into war to keep itself safe. It is a vision of US strategy that does not shrink from using force, but only if vital national security interests are at stake. If they are, then the United States should defend those interests by taking the gloves off and doing whatever it takes. But most of the time vital interests are not at stake, and the United States can and should rely on “other nonviolent policy means.” It is a doctrine designed to husband US power and keep the country’s powder dry, so that when America does have to go to war, it can do so with ample domestic and international support and with military forces that have not been ground down and degraded by endless interventions in arenas of little strategic importance.
What do we learn if we apply Powell’s principles to the current debate on Syria? Just ask and answer the questions, giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. The results are not pretty.
1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The United States hasn’t cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business with Bashar al-Assad’s government whenever doing so suited it. If it didn’t matter who ran Syria for the past 40-plus years, why does it suddenly matter so much now? Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a “vital” interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not true weapons of mass destruction anyway.
2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can figure out what the Obama administration’s actual objective is — defend the chemical weapons norm? reinforce US credibility? weaken the government a little but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. — you have a better microscope than I do.
3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well, maybe. I’m sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it is hard to know how “fully” the risks and costs have been weighed. But let’s be generous and give the administration this one.
4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly. As I’ve noted before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have thought this whole issue wasn’t important enough to warrant energetic diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war. And there in a nutshell is a lot of what’s wrong with US foreign policy these days.
5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger of a quagmire here, so their “exit strategy” consists of limiting the US attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to the rebels. In other words, they are preemptively “exiting” by not getting very far in. But that also means that intervention won’t accomplish much, and it still creates the danger of a slippery slope. If the action they are now contemplating doesn’t do the job, what then? If credibility is your concern, won’t those fears increase if the United States takes action and Assad remains defiant?
6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It’s hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad’s forces won’t do that much to restate any “red lines” against weapons use, and as noted above, that’s a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might also help bring down the Assad government, thereby turning Syria into a failed state, fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran, derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important goal), and even reinforce Iran’s desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things through?
7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no. Surveys show overwhelming public opposition to military action in Syria. Obama can boost those numbers with some saber-rattling and threat-inflation (now under way), but the American people are going to remain skeptical. I suspect Congress will eventually go along — for a variety of reasons — but right now the idea of going to war in Syria is even less popular than Congress itself (which is saying something). Bottom line: This criterion is nowhere near being met.
8. Genuine and broad international support? Not really. The British parliament has already voted against military action, and Germany has made it clear that it’s not playing either. Russia and China are of course dead set against.
America’s got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and (quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced, or co-opted. But it’s a far cry from the support the United States had in the first (Persian) Gulf War or when it initially entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. This is not the sort of “genuine and broad” support that General Powell had in mind.
I draw two conclusions from this exercise. First, the case for military action in Syria remains weak, and the fact that the United States is barreling headlong toward that outcome anyway is a powerful indictment of its foreign policy and national security establishment. Second, Colin Powell was really onto something when he laid out this framework, and the United States would be in much better shape today had that framework guided US military responses for the past 20 years.
First published in Foreign Policy.