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Remembering the Powell Doctrine

The framework that was forgotten when we needed it the most.

Words: Irvin Oliver
Pictures: Sara Cottle

Colin Powell, who passed away on October 18, 2021, due to complications from COVID-19, had a distinguished career in public service, rising to become the Secretary of State to President George W. Bush. As Secretary of State, Powell’s 2003 speech to the UN in favor of the US invasion of Iraq marred an otherwise exceptional legacy. Powell quickly came to regret that seemingly career-defining speech, which he based on false intelligence. Still, a deeper look at Powell’s legacy must also include the Powell Doctrine: A rational and careful method to wage war. The Powell Doctrine may be the most critical aspect of his nearly 40 years of public service.

No one can predict how war will unfold. The complexity of humanity’s most complex tragedy is often too much to grasp. The factors leading to war, the passions driving people to conflict, and the fog and friction inherent in war create a degree of complexity often beyond human comprehension. While we cannot know the path war will take us on, thorough planning and preparation that embraces uncertainty can improve our prospect of success and ensure that the US employs its military force appropriately, wisely, and effectively. The American military response to al-Qaida’s assault on the US on Sept. 11, 2001, was a rational response to the national security threat the terrorist group posed to the US, which had been the group’s prime target since the mid-1990s. Less rational was the deliberation American decisionmakers had in the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.

The US is still reckoning with decisions made nearly 20 years ago, and its decisions to withdraw forces partially from Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now from Afghanistan entirely. Despite our confidence, no one knew how demanding the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan would be. Nor did we know that 9/11 would lead to the Second Gulf War. We had effectively entered into a conflict that we thought we could easily control, but which we fundamentally did not understand, a perfect example of Donald Rumsfeld’s “Knowns and Unknowns.” While the twists and turns of the warpath are unpredictable, the state that embarks on that path should do so deliberately and with its eyes wide open. After all, this is precisely what the Powell Doctrine envisioned. So, what happened?  


Powell made his name as President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor and President George H.W. Bush’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Before he held these posts, Powell was the military assistant to Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger. It was Weinberger who laid the foundation for what would eventually become the Powell Doctrine.

Powell’s gravity and influence in the first Bush and Clinton White Houses no longer existed without a uniform, and hence he was unable to shape the political goals that underpinned the military actions after 9/11.

Weinberger sought to frame the American use of military force when national security interests are engaged but not necessarily vital. The October 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, was a painful shock to the US, especially when the purpose of the Marines’ mission was unclear. Weinberger posed six tests to consider whether the use of military force was appropriate. First, the issue should be of vital national interest to the US or its allies. Second, the US should be willing to commit forces and resources toward winning, regardless of how “success” is measured. Third, American leadership should have clearly defined political and military objectives. Fourth, the forces the US commits should be proportional to the political and military goals sought. Fifth, the whole of the state should be engaged and aligned through congressional support. Finally, the use of US military force should be a last resort. Weinberger’s thoughts were closely aligned with those of his military assistant Powell, who based his input on the tactical success but strategic failure he witnessed firsthand in Vietnam. 

From Weinberger’s test, Powell formed his namesake concept: The idea that if the US uses military force, that decision should come after national leadership has exhausted all non-violent policy options. The decision to use military force should come after a rational deliberation and consideration of the consequences of the use of force. From there, the military must have unambiguous objectives tied to clearly defined political goals, matching the level of military force to the political objectives. This process does not prohibit military force; it simply reduces the chances of sleepwalking into a quagmire. 


Powell was clear that there is no fixed set of rules guiding the employment of the military; the need for ambiguity and the particular circumstances of the situation should drive operational decisionmaking. While al-Qaida’s attacks against the US on 9/11 required a military response from the US, that response lacked a coherent strategic framework, which led to the disastrous military adventure in Iraq. In this way, the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are inextricably linked. The Iraq War muddied the objectives in the Global War on Terror and prevented the US from applying decisive force in Afghanistan. Without clear objectives — and the military force necessary to achieve them — both Afghanistan and Iraq meandered. After Vietnam, this was not the case for American military interventions until Operation Restore Hope in Somalia became UNOSOM II, leading to the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993. 

Most other US military actions of the late 1980s and early 1990s demonstrated the wisdom of the Powell Doctrine. Military intervention in Panama in 1989 and the First Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 had broad public support, clear political and military objectives, and overwhelming military force. As President H.W. Bush’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell was able to exert influence on both military operations, helping to lead to successful outcomes for the US. Unfortunately, as the Secretary of State for President George W. Bush, he had little influence in shaping the decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The constructive relationship Powell had with Vice President Dick Cheney no longer existed with Rumsfeld as secretary of defense and Powell out of uniform. In other words, Powell’s gravity and influence in the first Bush and Clinton White Houses no longer existed without a uniform, and hence he was unable to shape the political goals that underpinned the military actions after 9/11. Without coherent guiding principles, both wars suffered from the same conceit and lack of vision. 

Cheney and Rumsfeld were the most influential members of Bush’s wartime decisionmaking cabinet. Their desire to go to war, however, lacked the practical political, strategic, and operational thoughtfulness needed to accompany the decision. Their failure was the belief that the US military had unassailable supremacy to impose democracy by force. The need to defeat al Qaida was crystal clear in the aftermath of 9/11, but the ways and means failed to achieve that objective. Rumsfeld’s decision to not deploy overwhelming force while expanding the mission to include nation-building and democratization of Afghanistan created an even greater dissonance between the operational ends, ways, and means. The decision to divert resources from Afghanistan to Iraq to fight a preventive war and expand the Global War on Terror exacerbated the debacle already unfolding in Afghanistan.

The Global War on Terror — the thought that the US and its partners would eliminate terrorism — created an impossible gulf between ends and means; there was no feasible way of accomplishing the strategic goal. Insufficient US troops (less than 10,000) were retained in Afghanistan in late 2002 as CENTCOM reoriented toward its new mission in Iraq. Without a coherent strategy that aligned political goals to military objectives and sufficient resources, the American war in Afghanistan remained in stasis for seven years while the war in Iraq was the priority. Not only did American decisionmakers fail to define a feasible, suitable, and acceptable plan or exit strategy for the war effort, they also did not adequately resource the endeavor.

While the wars lacked decisive levels of force, the uniformed military also bears culpability in the ultimate outcome of the Afghanistan War when considered against the tenets of the Powell Doctrine. The military never asked for the political goals that would underpin their use of force and found that their objectives were unmoored as a consequence. This is a failing that echoes the military’s misemployment and acquiescence in Vietnam. Throughout the Afghanistan War, American military leadership constantly spoke publicly of the progress US and coalition forces were making tactically, reiterating its mistakes. Every commander touted their units’ progress during their tours in Afghanistan, never successfully linking tactical actions to political outcomes. 


So, what should we take away from America’s first war of the 21st century as the US now shifts toward “great power competition?” Great power competition may very well include small wars in the periphery for the US. In the last period of such competition, the US employed military force in Korea, Vietnam, the Caribbean, and Europe, including covert uses of force globally. Despite the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, the US will again call on its armed forces. Potential threats to US security remain in the Middle East, and strategic competition with China and Russia may lead to a tragic miscalculation. Today’s use of military force may also include unmanned drones, which still require a coherent framework for their use. Regardless, when US leaders again look to employ military force, these post-9/11 failures to effectively provide a strategic framework for that force should be foremost in the minds of civilian decisionmakers, military leadership, and the American public. 

The results of the American war in Afghanistan are mixed. The conflict severely diminished al-Qaida and the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, so in that regard, the American military was successful. However, the strategic overreach of nation-building lacked focus and resources, leading to another quagmire the US has messily exited. In the same way, the quagmire of Vietnam pointed to a straightforward way to frame the use of military force; Afghanistan may serve as a painful reminder. 

The Powell Doctrine remains a valuable framework for the US. Through its elected leadership, the American public should demand answers to the questions to which the doctrine points. Moreover, American military leadership should ask the same of its civilian leadership. If the answers to the questions Weinberger posed lack assurance, the US should reconsider its potential use of force until suitable answers come forth. In the meantime, US administrations should consider using the Powell Doctrine to avoid starting new, disastrous wars.  

Irvin Oliver is a retired US Army armor officer with a background in strategic and operational planning. A former Armor officer, Irvin served several overseas assignments, including tours in Iraq and Kosovo. He also taught international relations at West Point.

Irvin Oliver

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