Dont Bring Back the Powell Doctrine

If you ever served in the military or elsewhere in America’s security establishment, you will, like me, have experienced many of the same conversations on foreign or military affairs as if they are running in a time loop. They are often variations on themes.

“Thanks for your service,” an elder male says to me after our brief introduction. “I never served, but today, in today’s world, I tell you, Colin Powell had it right. We need to go in with overwhelming force and end this now and forever.”

“You mean nukes?” I ask. He swirls the remaining wine in his glass and I do the same. This time it happens to be in a wine bar in downtown Truckee, California.

“Not nukes,” he fires back. We disengage and float away—sailing around the room.


The Real Powell Doctrine

The Powell Doctrine is continuously suggested to me by nonmilitary types as a solution to many of America’s national security problems. Usually these people are just angry and often non-militarist. I believe their support or belief in the rectitude of the full application of America’s war machine to the latest conflict, no matter how small or large would surely wane if it ever became more than just idle talk in a bar. They believe in an imagined Powell Doctrine.

In brief, the Powell Doctrine calls for:

  1. Clear political objectives;
  2. no mission creep;
  3. the use of force as a last resort;
  4. the employment of overwhelming military force only to secure vital interests;
  5. no restraint on military operations by political leadership;
  6. establishment of political support prior to military intervention;
  7. immediate withdrawal after victory in accordance with a pre-designed exit strategy, and;
  8. building broad support by the American people.

Unfortunately, the imagined Powell Doctrine often is parsed down by people talking in bars to only two points, namely overwhelming military force and freedom from civilian political control. This leaves out the majority of what the doctrine calls for—and also the parts that were left out when considering going to war in Iraq in 2003. That did not turn out well.

The Powell Doctrine is a pair of zip-lock handcuffs when it comes to dealing with threats such as terrorism. It sets us up to be either “all in or all out.” It holds that we must either commit the full of our national might and energies to war or do nothing at all.

The problem is that the Powell Doctrine is a pair of zip-lock handcuffs when it comes to dealing with threats such as terrorism and insurgencies today. It sets us up to be either “all in or all out.” We must either commit the full of our national might and energies to a war or we should do nothing at all. When going down the doctrine’s checklist, it is quite difficult to see how America could ever prosecute a “War on Terror” or fully engage groups such as ISIS. The conditions that would have to be satisfied to justify war are too high. Some would consider such high barriers to military action desirable; others see it as foolish.

Conflict in today’s world largely consists of angry individuals, such as Ottawa attacker Michael Zihaf-Bibeau; ideologically dedicated fighters in small cells or forces, such as the Kouachi-Coulibaly group in Paris, and; continuous conflict with transnational non-state actors, such as al Qaeda and ISIS. The massive, superior, and violent nature of the U.S. military and America’s preponderance of force means that any state, organization, or small group must adopt asymmetric strategies and tactics because facing America head on is not an option.

The kind of war that the Powell Doctrine was envisioned to justify or limit America to are not the kind that America’s foes are willing or able to fight. If America followed the Powell Doctrine, no war fought today would be justified. For some, keeping the U.S. from going to war by erecting high barriers is what they want. Others recognize that the world is still a dangerous place and while peace is always preferable to war, threats must be confronted and peace should not come at any cost. You do not always get to pick what kind of war you fight.

The Powell Doctrine, promoted by some as Clausewitzian, is in fact anti-Clausewitzian. It provides a rigid doctrine which goes against the Clausewitzian suggestion that, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking.”  The wars being fought in today’s anxious and disordered world focus on much smaller use of force where “shock and awe” or terror are the tool used to create political change. They are based on uncertainty. Force needs to be available without the massing of soldiers and fires on the scale of Desert Storm and to fight against foes who do not wear flags or uniforms.


The Putin Doctrine

The tactics and strategy at play in the proxy war that Russia’s Vladimir Putin is fighting in Ukraine is an instructive example of this problem. Only those wholly blinded by wishful thinking or propaganda can deny that Russia is directing the conflict there through pro-Russian forces in east Ukraine. Unlike in the “War on Terror”, the real foe here is a state actor with a sizable conventional military capability behind a thin veneer of a civil war and insurgency.

If Russian troops in full uniform had rolled in tanks, trucks, and helicopters across the border and pushed across the whole of Ukraine and into Kiev in a WWII-style blitzkrieg, the Powell Doctrine may perhaps have justified America using military force. Instead, the Powell Doctrine is frustrated and befuddled by the simple employment of a few “little green men” in balaclavas without patches on their uniforms—just enough to maintain “plausible deniability.” They chew away at Ukrainian territory a little at a time like termites; first Sevastopol Airport, then Crimea, and now chunks of east Ukraine.

Those who want peace at any cost are more than willing to buy it. Those who believe in containment are satisfied that it is localized. However, considering that this is not the first time Russia has employed such tacticsrecall Georgia 2008there are signs it may happen again in the medium or long term. There are also signs that the sanctions are beginning to bite hard in Moscow, as are the low oil prices. These may force Putin to trim back.

However, even if Russia goes home now it will still leave with more than it came with.  With some European states already keen to tone down sanctions and return to normal trade with Russia, the temporary pain may have proven worth it for Vladimir Putin to have annexed territory, built his domestic approval to fever pitch, and embarrassed the West. If Putin goes home now, the green men may come back in Ukraine or elsewhere in a few years. Russia will likely recover from the losses when Europe lifts sanctions.

The Powell Doctrine sets a standard too high to justify action against the majority of threats America faces today. This is not by accident. America’s opponents—in Moscow and the Middle East—do their own strategic thinking. They understand that if they employ asymmetric tactics they can easily befuddle an America stuck on doctrines, wishing for peace above all, and still reeling from the divisive effects of two controversial and expensive wars that were unpopular with the rest of the world.

There is the Powell Doctrine as it is and the Powell Doctrine as we imagine it, much as there is the world as it is and how we would like it. As Clausewitz would have it, understanding the nature of the war one is facing is paramount. That is to say the world as it is. The Powell Doctrine is not what we need. People talking about war in bars should come to understand all of this. However, that is probably the world as I would like it.


[Photo: Flickr CC: Expert Infantry]


Col. Philip Lisagor, US Army (Retired) served three tours in Iraq and was part of Charlie Wilson’s war in the mid-eighties, training Mujahedeen in Peshawar, Pakistan. He lives in Northern Nevada where he trains horses and skis when there is snow. He was an Ally Fellow at the Harvard-Kennedy School of Government and recently completed an MFA in writing at Brian Turner’s program at Sierra Nevada College thanks to his GI Bill benefits.



  1. J Stockmoe 11 February, 2015 at 14:19 Reply

    In essence, we have not mastered the strategic art of limited versus total war (ways, ends, means).

    What mystifies me is why we so dogmatically apply our doctrine in limited war… fighting off operating bases where we become predictable and entrenched, failing to use all of the weapons in our quiver, ceding the initiative, avoiding punitive “shock.”

    • Chris Miller 11 February, 2015 at 15:32 Reply

      I think this is an important question. I think that it is a result of the fact that the American public’s tolerance for U.S casualties is very low (which, as a combat vet, I appreciate) and one of the effects of this is that our politicians, when they do commit to military action, will only do so in a manner that absolutely minimizes U.S. casualties. That’s why they love drones and airstrikes and when we’ve got boots on the ground anywhere it is in large protected encampments and those who venture outside the wire are armored up, vehicle-wise and individual wise, like turtles.

      I’m not complaining; armor saved my life in Iraq. But this wish to keep our own casualties to an absolute minimum does mean we have to move slowly, deliberately and, especially in a COIN environment, it means the enemy knows where we are and when we’re coming at all times. We sacrifice the element of surprise and initiative for survivability.

      I’ve read some convincing arguments that moving U.S. ground ops away from big battalion and company-level maneuvers down to small platoon, squad or fire team elements that move and live among the population would be more effective, more so than sending out whole companies to sit on a PB in a valley for a couple months or a year, but then ceding it to the enemy the moment they leave to go back to a hardened FOB. It would be more effective to take and hold villages permanently by keeping troops there permanently (rotating them out obviously), rather than looking at a geographic feature on a map and attempting to disrupt enemy operations there for a period of time by becoming a stationary target and withdrawing when other areas take priority–and then having to start over again there later using the same tactic. It would be more dangerous for our troops and there would be more casualties. That’s not a good thing. It would, however, be more effective in countering insurgents. Insurgents move among the populace and the only real way to disrupt them is cut them off by being among the populace as well (but no Strategic Hamlets, please).

      But the public and our political leaders do not want to see flag draped caskets. It was the same with Vietnam. The public and politicians will not support actions again in which large volumes of U.S. troops are being killed. Part of me is glad for that, but the other part tells me that we’ll continue to struggle to fight effectively in COIN and conventional war environments because of it.

  2. S Sundt 11 February, 2015 at 16:00 Reply

    Excellent article! However, the question still remains–if Total War or doing nothing are not palatable war strategies, and Limited War has been proven to be a consistent failure at all levels, what is the answer? By removing the option of Total War the US is by definition destined to approach all future conflicts from a “limited” perspective, and by extension, doomed to failure in the long term. I submit that what we are really talking about for current and future US war strategy is based in “Reactive War” where the US is always in a constant state of responding to conflict and threats vice ever getting out in front of the threat and taking bold, definitive action. This leads the US to acting less with the “art of war” and more with the “art of muddling through” and ends up costing enormous amounts of blood and treasure with little or minimal gains in an endstate that is mushy at best. If one thing is true about war it is that there are no absolutes and no doctrines are going to completely address each and every conflict adequately. And since the United States has embraced the concepts of jus ad bellum and jus in bello as the foundations of our Western Judeo-Christian war strategy, we will always be constrained by the proportionality aspect that is an integral part of asymmetric and limited conflicts. The US not going to start dropping nuclear weapons on state or non-state actors every time they cut someone’s head off or invade a weak government. In other words, the US is going to continue to fight its wars in a limited or reactive way in the future, and it is going to end up with limited results that do not completely settle the conflict.

  3. Scott Carpenter 11 February, 2015 at 19:03 Reply

    Col Lisagor,

    I believe your points are worth considering. Yes the Powell Doctrine is not fully understood especially when treated like a checklist. Second, as you said it does not conveniently match-up with some of the present situations. However, I don’t believe we should treat it as something that is absolutely rigid -as when it was first used.

    I believe the doctrine is still relevant and certainly does have critical merits that should not be overlooked. While I don’t think each of the 8 points should be argued individually, I believe points 1,3, and 7 (Clear political objectives; use of force as a last resort; and … pre-designed exit strategy are fundamental and essential. I would also argue that these do not necessarily need to be addressed individually but rather collectively given the situation.

    I would not argue that we need to sit off to the side and not commit military forces until “the last resort” but we certainly should not commit force in the name of “we need to do something.” My overall point is that before we get to the point of “last resort”, our political body needs to develop clearly defined and understood objectives and a defined exit strategy. This dialogue is an absolute as it provides a context to begin to address the remaining points. And is needed so that we can conduct actions that come prior to the last resort. Have we reached the point of last resort in Eastern Ukraine vis-a-vis our political objectives and defined ean state? The use of military force is utterly convenient in our country because we have a deep wallet to absorb mistakes and therefore we do not apply the depth of thought needed to design a proper strategy.

  4. S Sundt 12 February, 2015 at 02:15 Reply

    If someone can tell me what a “pre-designed exit strategy” for the Middle East looks like they will have solved several thousand years of almost constant conflict in that region. And anyone who thinks the United States is going to resolve conflict in any one of the Middle East nations hasn’t been reading their history about this region. There is no “winning” strategy for the many problems in the Middle East and it is surely never going to be resolved by an outside Western Christian nation like the US. And if you want to parse it down to just a very narrow (e.g. limited) scope and then hope to “get in and get out” you are dreaming. There is no such thing as “Peace in our time” when it comes to the Middle East. The best that can be hoped for is that the unending conflict in that region is tamped down for a few years so that it doesn’t spread too much but that is about it. There is no endstate for the resolution of deep-seated conflict in that region. Whack-a-Mole is not a strategy. And if that is the strategy, it really isn’t much of a strategy to justify expending vast amounts of blood and treasure. There is no “unconditional surrender” here, no clear cut end in sight. Same goes for near-peer balance of power dynamics like what is going on with Russia or the increasing expansionist agendas by China. There isn’t a credible military strategy or doctrine that works in either of those two situations. As we’ve learned in Korea and then Vietnam, the desired endstate is never reached, it just continues to morph over time until nations just get tired of fighting and killing each other. There is no truer statement than that strategies and doctrine never survive the firing of the first bullet. Furthermore, baring a direct attack on the United States where our very existence is threatened, we will respond to future conflicts in a limited, reactionary, and proportional way, never really being able to articulate a satisfying and rigid pre-designed exit strategy or endstate. The real world just doesn’t operate like that. There are no absolutes.

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