Colin Powell’s recent intervention in the debate about the Bush administration’s proposal unilaterally to alter the Geneva Conventions marked a departure from the silence of the former secretary of state and ex-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Whether or not we hear more from General Powell in the years to come, we are likely to hear much more about his doctrine.
The "Powell doctrine" holds that the US should go to war only as a last resort and then only with overwhelming force. In his article "US Forces: Challenges Ahead" in Foreign Affairs in 1992-93, Mr Powell posed a number of questions to be asked by US policymakers before launching a war. Is a vital national security interest threatened? Do we have a clear, attainable objective? Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analysed? Have all other non-violent policy means been exhausted? Is there a plausible exit strategy? Have the consequences been fully considered? Is the action supported by the American people? Does the US have broad international support? The Powell doctrine developed similar principles laid out by Caspar Weinberger, defence secretary during the Reagan administration. Mr Powell, like Mr Weinberger and much of the US military, was determined to avoid large-scale debacles such as the Vietnam war and minor disasters such as the Somalia intervention in 1992-93.
The first big war of the post-cold war era, the Gulf war of 1991, exemplified the logic of the Powell doctrine. President George H.W. Bush limited the goal of the war to the one with the greatest international support the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait rather than the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Under Mr Powell’s leadership of the joint chiefs of staff, the US used overwhelming force to achieve that aim.
Following the Gulf war, however, the Powell doctrine was rejected by two groups: liberal humanitarian hawks and neo-conservatives. The humanitarian hawks, exemplified by Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, argued that the doctrine set the bar for US military intervention too high and would exclude "humanitarian interventions" to end ethnic conflict or protect human rights in places such as the Balkans or Sudan.
On the right, the neo-conservatives rejected Mr Powell’s cautious approach to the use of force in favour of what the journalist Max Boot hailed as "the new American way of war", which would send small forces equipped with high-technology firepower on semi-colonial missions, including "wars of choice" intended to produce "regime change" such as in Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defence, and his civilian aides have struggled to impose this approach over the opposition of the career military, who tend to share the views of Gen Powell.
The George W. Bush/Rumsfeld doctrine was put to the test in Afghanistan and Iraq. It flunked. Determined to invade Iraq quickly after deposing the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Bush administration split US forces and put the lion’s share in Iraq. In both places, the result has been the worst of all worlds insufficient conventional forces for effective pacification, but enough to inflame local hostility and provide targets.
A case can be made that no amount of conventional forces, using conventional tactics, can be effective against insurgencies. But that argument strengthens the Powell doctrine, according to which the military should not be used for prolonged counter-insurgency wars, peacekeeping operations or occupation. The purpose of the military is to break the enemy’s conventional forces. Other groups local allies, peacekeeping forces and civilian relief agencies should be responsible for postwar reconstruction or pacification of insurgents.
Whether Republican or Democrat, the next administration is likely to follow the Powell doctrine. Today, six out of 10 Americans believe that the war in Iraq was a mistake and nearly half are opposed to the continuation of the Afghan war. Weary with inconclusive war on two fronts, the American people, in the absence of a further big terrorist attack or some other galvanising shock, are unlikely to support further large-scale military interventions for years to come. The backlash against the Vietnam war made presidents from Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan cautious about sending troops. Reagan preferred to rely on US-backed proxies such as anti-Soviet Afghans and Nicaraguan contras. The next several presidents are likely to share that preference.
The US military would also welcome a revival of the Powell doctrine. Simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have strained the military and forced it to lower its recruitment standards. It took a decade and a half to rebuild the armed forces after Vietnam, and rebuilding a demoralised and ex-hausted military after Iraq may be the work of several presidents, not one.
Gen Powell may never serve in public office again. But the Powell doctrine rejected, for different reasons, by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations in which he served may turn out to have its greatest influence in the years ahead.