The Ambiguous Legacy of the Powell Doctrine

There was so much to admire and respect about Colin Powell: son of Jamaican immigrants to post-World War II Harlem, ROTC leader at City College and infantry officer in Vietnam. He matured into a powerful member of the national-security elite: White House fellow during the Nixon administration, military adviser to senior Pentagon officials in the Carter and Reagan administrations, national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. He was also a symbol of what a black man might achieve while still staying within the bounds of the American establishment.

But what is perhaps his most lasting legacy is more complex and, in some ways, corrosive. The “Powell Doctrine” on the proper uses of U.S. military power—briefly, that the U.S. should engage only in conflicts that serve our vital interests, with well-defined goals, and with the use of force as a last resort—has been a constraint on American strategic thinking and a constant problem for civil-military relations. In the wake of the recent debacle in Afghanistan, the situation promises to get worse.

The humiliating retreat from Kabul almost immediately revived the ghosts of Vietnam, which are also the spirits of the Powell Doctrine. In his autobiography My American Journey, Powell wrote that “we had entered into a halfhearted half-war, with much of the nation opposed or indifferent, while a small fraction carried the burden.” To the professional soldiers of Powell’s generation, this was a grave strategic error compounded by a moral crime: American lives lightly sacrificed without national purpose, without prospect of victory, without honor.

To many, that became and remains the dominant narrative of the war and of irregular wars in general. And, especially in the last decade, the narrative has returned. “It’s hard not to make that parallel [between Afghanistan and Vietnam],” former Army Special Forces Capt. Andrew MacNeil told Michael Phillips and Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal. Writing in The Hill, Richard Pierce asserted that “[p]residents can avoid future costly and tragic disasters like the war in Afghanistan by applying the Powell Doctrine every time they consider whether to commit U.S. combat forces.”   

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