When I was a cadet in the mid-to-late 1990s, the Powell Doctrine was essentially gospel at West Point. While WWI never lived up its moniker as the “War to End All Wars,” it seemed like Desert Storm might – not because it exposed the world to horrors that no rational human being would allow to happen again, but because it exposed the world to America’s unquestionable military dominance. It was an exquisite example of matching technological advancement, military innovation, and sound national policy to protect U.S. national security interests through the use of force. At the time, we believed that was how it would always be, that in the words of former President Bush the “new world order had begun.” Now, almost two decades and two wars later, I find myself torn on how to discuss the Powell Doctrine with my cadets – is it still a useful or even relevant way for junior officers to think about the U.S. Army as a global force prepared to win in an increasing complex world?
Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the wisdom of the Powell Doctrine and think that America would be well advised to reintroduce it concepts into every policy discussion involving the potential commitment of our military forces. A couple of years ago, Stephen Walt from Harvard tried to do that in a Foreign Policy article titled “Applying the 8 Questions of the Powell Doctrine to Syria.” While much of the current public debate on when and how America should use its military still seems dominated by political rhetoric and posturing, he challenged us to think through the questions Collin Powell put forward back in 1990:
- Is a vital national security interest threatened?
- Do we have a clear attainable objective?
- Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
- Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
- Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
- Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
- Is the action supported by the American people?
- Do we have genuine broad international support?
Just as WWI and Desert Storm were not the “Wars to End All Wars,” nor were Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom. Another fight is coming.
If we, as a nation, answered those questions objectively and honestly before sending America’s sons and daughters into harm’s way, we would clearly be better off. However, being the basis of sound policy debate and being a valid way for the military to advise and ultimately constrain our civilian leaders are two very different things. That gets back to my original question and personal struggle – should we teach the Powell Doctrine as just a strategic framework that was used once and cast aside or is it still a useful or relevant way for junior officers to think about how this nation uses or should use its military?
I do want my cadets to understand the Powell Doctrine and to be able to apply it critically when they think through potential U.S. responses to any number of threats currently facing our nation. However, I do not want them to think that they live in a world where they will only be called on to fight for and potentially die for their country under conditions they chose. Just as WWI and Desert Storm were not the “Wars to End All Wars,” nor were Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom. Another fight is coming.
And that is at the crux of the true burden anyone from instructors at West Point and ROTC programs to Drill Sergeants at Basic Training bear – while we are responsible for preparing the next generation of Soldiers, we have no idea what their war will look like. I had some amazing mentors while I was a cadet at West Point, but in truth no one directly prepared me to be a platoon leader in Afghanistan responsible for missions from leading a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) to support international special operations forces in contact one day and using my squads to help train local police in Paktika the next or to be a company executive officer in Iraq fighting through Baghdad one day and working with a local mayor to hold the first ever city council elections along the border with Syria the next. But I do remember those officers who pushed me to challenge assumptions, to think critically, and to work through complex problems systematically. And that is the most we can do – physically, technically, tactically, and intellectually prepare our next generation of leaders to be as agile as possible.