The Powell Doctrine lays out criteria for using U.S. military force in international conflicts—but in recent years, the wisdom of the Powell Doctrine has been all but forgotten. Discover how an updated version of the Powell Doctrine could benefit the U.S. military—as well as the international community at large—when you subscribe to World Politics Review.
Chastened by the failure of U.S. military might to achieve strategic success in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. observers began to re-examine the wisdom of the Powell Doctrine, a set of criteria for the use of U.S. military force abroad that sets a high and prohibitive bar for any U.S. military intervention—an especially sensitive topic since the days of the Vietnam War. The Powell Doctrine dictates that any U.S. involvement in wars should come with clear, realistic and achievable political objectives—and with strong support from the American people and a clearly defined exit strategy.
Named for Gen. Colin Powell—chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for both George H.W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations and secretary of state during the first term of President George W. Bush—the doctrine asserts that when the United States uses military force, it must do so in decisive fashion and only in the service of vital national interests. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, the restraints imposed by the Powell Doctrine were summarily cast aside. Emboldened by a surrounding cadre of neo-conservatives, for whom U.S. involvement in wars was a vital tool of national statecraft, President George W. Bush quickly became a proponent of military intervention and nation-building.
But if the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught us anything, it is that the bar for overseas intervention should remain high. While the future may be unknowable, the criteria by which we use force need not be. The United States must prepare for the conflicts that are not only in the country’s vital interests, but that it can also bring to a satisfactory conclusion. That’s the essence of the Powell Doctrine, and it deserves reconsideration.
To learn more about the Powell Doctrine and its criteria for U.S. involvement in war, read The Powell Doctrine’s Enduring Relevance for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.
Why the Powell Doctrine Can’t Prevent U.S. Military Interventions
Despite the Powell Doctrine’s recent return to relevance, the asymmetric dynamics that hampered U.S. military success in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to be persistent features of any future U.S. involvement in wars or conflicts. There will be a temptation to avoid these future interventions because they don’t meet the threshold for intervention defined by Powell, but contingencies don’t always conform to strategic theory. Indeed, America has repeatedly tried to swear off large-scale interventions, to little avail. Manpower-intensive stability operations have a peculiar way of finding us, and America may yet blunder into another large-scale stability mission. Claims to the contrary neglect the profound effects of “mission creep,” greatly overestimate our diplomatic acumen, and overlook the fact that some states may simply be too big to fail. As a result, the U.S. will still find itself drawn into wars and conflicts that defy the Powell Doctrine’s tenets.
Read more about the future of conflict in, Like It or Not, Small Wars Will Always Be Around for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.
Could the Powell Doctrine Be Adapted for Improving the Stability of Fragile States?
One place to adapt the Powell Doctrine would be for America to lower its expectations about what it can realistically do to stabilize and rebuild fragile states. Syria is the extreme example that raises doubts about the feasibility and effectiveness of international interventions to alter conditions in war or improve political environments. But the West’s newfound humility about past failed interventions need not lead to total despair or disengagement. Instead of the Powell Doctrine’s all-or-nothing approach, a less-is-more school of thought can be used to articulate a positive strategy for achievable goals. Spending less taxpayer money with more coherent purpose could, after all, lead to good outcomes, if partners in fragile or post-conflict states themselves have more realistic expectations of the role of the West in their own long, painful but necessary processes of progress and change.
To learn more about nation-building, read When Doing Less to Stabilize Fragile States Is the Least Bad Option for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.
What the Powell Doctrine Can’t Fix About America’s Strategic Culture
Unfortunately, rather than seeking to define a better set of limited goals for military interventions in fragile states, the United States is currently debating over how quickly to disengage from Syria and Afghanistan, as frustration with these seemingly interminable conflicts has grown on the political right and left. But every time President Donald Trump mentions military withdrawal, security experts, political leaders and military commanders push back. Pulling out American troops, the experts contend, would pave the way for an eventual victory by the Islamic State in Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which could unleash another round of terrorist attacks on the United States. They may make their case in different ways, but the ultimate message is clear: “Victory” is attainable if the United States persists for some unspecified additional period of time. How did this happen? Why has the United States reached a point where it is stuck in quagmires with no better ideas than tweaking the existing approach and hanging on? The route to here was not simply a series of bad decisions by political or military leaders or a lack of creativity, but a deeper problem in America’s strategic culture.
To learn more about the deeper meaning of America’s “endless wars,” read What the Quagmires in Afghanistan and Syria Reveal About America’s Strategic Culture for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.
You can learn much more about the Powell Doctrine and a wide variety of other world political issues in the vast, searchable World Politics Review (WPR) Library, such as:
- Avoiding open-ended and unwinnable interventions, in The Powell Doctrine’s Enduring Relevance
- Relying on more than military power to influence global events, in Understanding the Limits of American Power
- The future of U.S. involvement in war, in Like It or Not, Small Wars Will Always Be Around
- Modernizing guidelines for engagement in global conflicts, in Updated Weinberger Principles Still a Guide for Use of U.S. Force
- Taking a hands-off approach to global stability, in When Doing Less to Stabilize Fragile States Is the Least Bad Option
- The twin challenges facing U.S. security policy, in Fragile States and Great Power Rivalry Are Back. Is the U.S. Ready?
- The deeper meaning of America’s “endless wars,” in What the Quagmires in Afghanistan and Syria Reveal About America’s Strategic Culture
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in July 2018 and is regularly updated.