Small Wars

This Week at War: The Long Death of the Powell Doctrine

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J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images
J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images

Mullen finished off the Powell Doctrine

After a long illness and years of neglect, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, finally euthanized the Powell Doctrine. Mullen administered the coup de grâce in a speech he delivered on March 3 at Kansas State University.

During his tenure as chairman, Gen. Colin Powell stated the principles he thought the U.S. government should follow when contemplating the use of military force. According to Powell, the situation should involve a vital national security interest. There should be a clear and obtainable objective. A clear exit strategy should be planned from the beginning. The action should have broad political support. The military plan should employ decisive and overwhelming force in order to achieve a rapid result. And the country should use force only as a last resort. Powell’s principles were no doubt the product of his negative experiences as an officer during the Vietnam War and the results of Operation Desert Storm, which seemed at the time to be a vindication of his ideas.

Needless to say, the deployments of U.S. military force this decade have obeyed precious few of these guidelines. Powell wrote his doctrine in an attempt to keep the United States from thoughtlessly involving itself in ill-defined and open-ended military quagmires. But critics have argued that modern irregular adversaries have exploited gaps the doctrine left uncovered. By this view, rigid adherence to the Powell Doctrine would prevent the United States from having any effective response to irregular warfare challenges. Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have followed its precepts.

So what is the new Mullen Doctrine? For the chairman, the issue of whether the United States will employ military force has long been settled. The issue now is how the United States should apply its national power. Mullen summed up his views this way:

We must not look upon the use of military forces only as a last resort, but as potentially the best, first option when combined with other instruments of national and international power. 

We must not try to use force only in an overwhelming capacity, but in the proper capacity, and in a precise and principled manner. And we must not shrink from the tug of war — no pun intended — that inevitably plays out between policymaking and strategy execution. Such interplay is healthy for the republic and essential for ultimate success.

The Mullen Doctrine accepts that every day for the foreseeable future, U.S. military forces will shoot at, or will be shot at, by somebody somewhere in the world. Given this seemingly permanent state of war, Mullen says that politicians, soldiers, and the public will need to engage in an open-ended discussion that will constantly adjust how the country employs its military forces.

Mullen assumes that the public now accepts that low-level warfare is an enduring fact of life. If he is wrong about this, the Powell Doctrine could rise from the grave.

What is Burma learning from the nuclear "rogues"?

Is North Korea helping Burma build a plutonium-producing reactor? On March 2, the Washington Post discussed this possibility, along with the broader military relationship between the two countries. The article noted that the budding military partnership between Burma and North Korea has the attention of the Obama administration. But as is the pattern with all such isolated and "rogue" regimes, the U.S. government is struggling to achieve diplomatic leverage over the situation.

Could Burma have a clandestine nuclear program? In September 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed a nearly complete plutonium reactor it found in the Syrian desert. A subsequent investigation revealed that the site was a near duplicate of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor and built with North Korea’s assistance. With the discovery of the joint North Korean-Syrian project, many wondered where else in the world North Korea may have secret nuclear partnerships.

David Albright, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Institute for Science and International Security, has concluded that information that Burma is constructing major nuclear facilities is inconclusive and that the regime is not close to establishing any significant nuclear capability. He also notes that trade in nuclear materials with North Korea is banned by the U.N. Security Council.

Albright is hopeful that the early detection of a possible Burmese nuclear effort will enable the international community to stop such a program, in contrast to its failure to do so with the Syrian reactor, with Iran’s program, and with Pakistan in the 1970s.

U.S. Sen. James Webb‘s visit to Burma in 2009 reopened direct talks between the two governments. Such contact is helpful and could be part of a solution, but is not worth much unless the United States and its partners develop some significant leverage to counter the numerous incentives in favor of nuclear proliferation.

"Rogue" states contemplating whether to begin a clandestine nuclear program find numerous cases of positive reinforcement for doing so, and few if any cases of effective punishment. For example, China is a strong defender of state sovereignty and has stood up for this principle by defending nuclear rogues such as North Korea and Iran that most in the international community would like to rein in. Sharing strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, Burma could expect similar protection from China.

Burma has no doubt observed how North Korea has converted its nuclear and ballistic missile programs into lucrative cash businesses. In addition, North Korea has repeatedly extracted food and energy assistance in exchange for promises of good behavior. And Pakistan has exemplified how rewarding a nuclear arsenal can be. Concern over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is a significant factor in the U.S. strategies for Afghanistan and South Asia and is a reason why Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid.

On the other side of the ledger, there are few examples of the international community effectively punishing a nuclear proliferator. Iran’s case remains open and is an opportunity for the U.N. Security Council to change that pattern. Until that happens, Burma and others considering their options will watch and learn.

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