Gourley’s Strachan Files (II): Was Colin Powell the worst general of the GWOT?

Gourley’s Strachan Files (II): Was Colin Powell the worst general of the GWOT?

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense chief military culture correspondent

One of the things that struck me most about Hew Strachan’s The Direction of War was his assessment of individual cases of strategic short-sightedness. Tom has already mentioned that Sir Hew took a pretty hard swipe at Samuel Huntington. But his remarks about Colin Powell seemed more remarkable compared to how he treated other American generals. He’s pretty defensive of guys who have somewhat become poster boys for screw-ups in generalship. Take these snippets from Strachan dealing with Stanley McChrystal running away with Rolling Stone:

  • Of the belief that the interview had challenged civilian authority over the military: “But McChrystal had not set out to challenge that norm. This was a cock-up, not a conspiracy. His dignified response, and his refusal to try to justify or explain away the remarks attributed to him, confirmed his disciplined acceptance of his own constitutional position. What he had done was something rather different: he and his colleagues had vented their frustration at the lack of clear political guidance within which McChrystal’s own operational concepts were meant to sit.”
  • And then later: “In 1952, when General Douglas MacArthur was recalled by President Harry Truman, his sin was to have called for a change in strategy; by contrast McChrystal just wanted a strategy.”

Strachan also gives a nice get-out-of-jail card to General Ricardo Sanchez for shutting the civilian side of the government out of his phase four planning: “Once in Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer said that his job was policy and General Ricardo Sanchez’s was the war, and that each should stick to his own sphere. So he should not have been surprised when he, not unreasonably, asked Sanchez for details of his tactical plans, and Sanchez responded, ‘Stop right there, sir. I am not going to give you the details of our tactical plan.'”

And even though Strachan does call Tommy Franks naive and arrogant, he still finds cause for leniency in the context of his planning environment. Strachan contends that Washington had become so obsessed with keeping the military out of politics that it also insisted on keeping political leadership out of military affairs. “Keep Washington focused on policy and strategy. Leave me the hell alone to run the war,” he quotes Franks in speaking to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. To a great extent, he argues, Franks was a product of the system, and the system went on to fail the man it created.

But it’s Colin Powell that Strachan never lets off the hook for creating the system in the first place. No accomplices or extenuating circumstances are ever introduced in his case. Strachan even rips him for misreading Clausewitz on the “trinity of war.” While he specifies that most of Powell’s ideas manifested themselves in Caspar Weinberger’s eponymous doctrine, he more frequently refers to it as the Powell doctrine.

The indictment reads:

Thanks to Colin Powell and his intellectual legacy, American military thought at the dawn of the new millennium had become quite explicit about its separation from the context of policy. Smarting from the effects of the Vietnam War on the US army, Powell said that US forces should be used to achieve clear political objectives, which should be determined in advance, and that they should be deployed with overwhelming military force to achieve a quick victory: their ‘exit strategy’ should be clear.

The Powell doctrine collapsed when it confronted the practice of war in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Today Powell might say that the results of not using overwhelming force and not having a clear ‘exit strategy’ are evident for all to see. But in advocating a clear demarcation between strategy and policy, he prevented the engagement of one with the other, and his legacy survives in principles to which many in the United States Army still adhere. What the Iraq War also showed, and a point that Powell also failed to address … was the fact that it would be the enemy — more than the American government — that would be trying to prevent the United States army from achieving quick victory. Classical strategy, and Clausewitz in particular, recognised that the relationship between strategy and policy was central, even if contested. Powell and his heirs worked hard to resolve that contest by divorcing policy from operational thought.