A New Way Forward? Mullen updates the Powell Doctrine with Warfare 2.0

It appears that Adm. Mike Mullen has started to lay out an update to the previously accepted war principals enumerated by Gen. Colin Powell in the 90s.  Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes in her memoirs that she once asked Powell, “What is the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”  This comment, though not a particularly well thought-out criticism, spoke to the core of the doctrine.  The Powell Doctrine seeks to reserve military force for when there is a broad popular support for military action and victory can be ensured.

According to Doug Dubrin at PBS, the Powell doctrine can be best summarized like so: “Military actions should only be used as a last resort and only if there is a clear risk to national security by the intended target; the force when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy; there must be strong support for the campaign by the general public; and there must be a clear exit strategy from the conflict in which the military is engaged.”

As you can see, recent interventionist themes and our continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq have made the Powell Doctrine somewhat obsolete, at least in terms of its use as a current operating model.  Moreover, possible harm to the civilian population destroys the utility of disproportionate force.

In his recent speeches at Fort Leavenworth, KS and Kansas State University, Adm. Mullen outlined a new approach which takes into account the lessons learned during Iraq and Afghanistan operations.  Overwhelming military force does not appear central role to this new strategy:

“In this type of war, when the objective is not the enemy’s defeat but the people’s success, less really is more … We will win, but we will do so only over time … Quite frankly, it will feel a lot less like a knockout punch and a lot more like recovering from an illness.”

The Powell doctrine relied on an exhaustion of diplomatic lines prior to the use of military force, and under this new way forward, the two options seem to complement each other:

“Defense and diplomacy are no longer discrete choices, one to be applied when the other fails, but must complement one another through the messy process of international relations.”

This new way of thinking about the military’s role and tactics encompasses the delicate balance that soldiers and their leaders must now play as warfighter, peace keeper, political advisor, and more.  Additionally, it is sensitive to the issues the military has faced when military firepower has caused injury to civilians and concurrently caused a detrimental impact to the war strategy.  The new approach calls for engagement by the military on multiple levels while on the ground, and the patience to allow civilian lines of operation to grow and expand.  Finally this Warfare 2.0 scenario seems to accept the fact that future hostilities will require a long-term commitment as par for the course.

The question must be asked; however, what are we giving up?  Even though the doctrine appears to have a scalpel-like ability to frame the current operational scheme, there seems to be an element missing.  The beauty of the Powell doctrine was that applied appropriately it prevented placing Americans in harm’s way unless absolutely necessary, and for a commonly agreed-upon purpose.  Does the new doctrine eschew that ideal and in its place opt for an understanding that American soldiers will train toward the expectation of protracted warfare?

I do not think that it does.  The new strategy may not step directly into the shoes of the Powell doctrine.  By that I mean to act as an overarching policy that can be readily be shown the door by a willing administration.  Instead, the policy could be interpreted as one that takes into account the political power of the executive, and one that the military can take ownership of.  Simply put, the executive may choose whatever course it wants and as well know the military’s role is to fall in on that course to the best of its ability.  In that event, this policy gives the military guiding first principles that set the correct expectations and helps protect American soldiers from sporadic civilian leadership and insulate them from erratic civilian criticism.  It is an imperfect doctrine, as all are, but it may be the best effort yet at formalizing the lessons of the Freedom Operations into sound policy.

Although Adm. Mullen’s new approach has yet to be fully explained, it seems like an important first step in redefining the military strategy and its place among the politicos.  The Powell Doctrine; however, did not lose its validity or complete applicability, and future discussions will have to find someone to include it in military strategy.  What do you think?

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