Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Powell Doctrine's fundamental flaw and the administration's dithering

I was going to write (yet another) post on intervention in Libya - specifically that the proponents of intervention, particularly a no-fly zone, are conducting their "planning process" backwards. They are starting with the tool they want to use and then backpedaling to find an interest to substantiate U.S. involvement (anywhere from human rights to the imminent threat Quaddafi poses). I was going to show how the process is supposed to work, starting with a grand strategy (or at least regional strategy) and then define the problem, what assets you have, etc. And then I was going to point out that the interventionists are correct on one thing: that President Obama is dithering. But not on what they think he is dithering on. The reason we don't know what to do with the Arab uprisings is that we don't have a coherent strategy to drive our policies and operations in the region - we don't know what we want out of all of this. That's where the administration is dithering, not in not blindly acting as to be seen as doing something.

The reason the previous paragraph wasn't turned into a full post of its own is because as I was about to go through the Powell Doctrine line-by-line, I noticed it, too, has a gaping strategic hole. And I thought that was more important than restating with an example that the U.S. has still not developed coherent regional or global strategies. Anyway, here's the hole: it doesn't account for the existence of any sort of greater strategy. The problem with the Powell Doctrine is the first question (the remaining questions address the operationalization of the intervention), which is the only question to address the reason for intervening. But it merely asks if a vital national security interest is threatened. The current situation in Libya is showing that without a strategic framework that elucidates what is a vital national security interest, when faced with a decision to intervene it can be very difficult to determine the answer to the first question.

As the administration has not yet said what they would want out these uprisings or a more general strategy in North Africa and the Middle East, we can speculate as to what those interests are. Some have argued that protecting the rebels in the east is a vital national security interest because failing to help them will have long term credibility consequences in the region. Others have argued that Quaddafi presents a threat to the United States (I think this is tenuous at best, but it is an argument being made). Or our oil interests in the region. Non-interventionists have argued that none of these are vital national security interests and therefore we shouldn't be involved. So who's correct?

The inaction of the administration (which most of you are aware that I support) indicates that they (and mainly the President) do not feel that any of these things are threats to vital national security issues. But they haven't said so and have been involved in interminable "discussions". These uprisings have been going on for nearly two months now and the administration has yet to define their stance on how to react to them. There is still no strategy, which would tell the U.S. government, the U.S. people, and the citizens and governments of Arab states what we consider to be our vital national security interests. Instead we're in a position where the administration doesn't know what to do, Arab leaders don't know what we're going to do, and the Arab people don't know what to expect from us. This can be a very dangerous situation with so many different expectations on what the U.S. can and should do.

The utility of the Powell Doctrine has been widely debated and untested, but now we're seeing that without a strategic framework to guide decision-makers in determining our vital national security interests, it doesn't much help us in deciding to intervene. It does provide a useful checklist for policymakers before intervening, but not whether or not to intervene. It appears we're getting past the point of useful intervention in Libya, but that doesn't mean the administration shouldn't still develop a strategy (or policy at least) to describe what it wants out of the region. If our current strategic incoherence continues, we are going to constantly revisit the intervention question and still not be able to intelligently address that question. Now would seem like a good time to finally developing viable strategies instead of putting out fires as they arise.


  1. Vitesse et PuissanceMarch 18, 2011 at 6:37 PM

    Well, it does appear that stabilizing the price of oil during a delicate economic recovery and advancing the prospects for democratic rule in the Middle East is not "vital" enough an interest for Mr. Fritz. But then the obvious question ensues, "IF not this, then what ?" Any solipsist appeasing American Firster can chant the noninterventionist creed. And any xenophobe can cite the principle of national self-determination - even if the regime is propped up by foreign mercenaries. Personally, I don't like the hypocrisy of it all, but that's what realism and neo-realism and "offensive realism" have come to. Remember the history pof Gaullism - Charles de Gaulle is the French leader who got out of Algeria and established a fawning posture vis a vis Arab nationalism that even Nicholas Sarkozy has not yet overcome. Now, it would certain be nice enough if Mr. Sarkoxy did no wait around for the United States to take action - after all, he also has an air force and an aircraft carrier to do the deed.

  2. My view of this is not solipsistic or America first or xenophobia. It's the fact that we're engaged in two fairly intrusive wars, a number of humanitarian efforts, and feeling the pains a serious economic downturn. There are a lot of really lousy things happening in the world that the U.S. cannot influence at the moment. I don't see what in Libya can cause a change in our involvement across the globe. I don't think Libya presents a threat to our vital national security interest.

    While that is my personal opinion, the purpose of this post is to show that the administration has not yet decided what our vital national security interests in these uprisings are. The hypocrisy of engaging here but not in Bahrain is indicative of this strategic incoherence, oil not withstanding. And that is the problem. 24 hours after the UNSC resolution has passed we still haven't determined if our interests are humanitarian or regime change. I've been involved in one war that had no real objectives or descriptions of success or strategic usefulness. I'm not likely to cheerlead another such endeavor.

  3. Fritz: I fail to see how Bahrain and Libya in any way are equal. While its true that the Bahrainian/Saudi crackdown is pretty harsh in Manama, last I heard there was no heavy artillery, no use of helicopters against civilians. And while the Saudis are foreigners, they are a legitimate allied military. Libyan regime forces seems to be at least 50% mercenary.
    Also, on the issue of costs, agreed with Vitesse that the issue of mediterranean stability in the face of climbing out of recession is a vital interest to at least Europe. I would assume the price of oil and shipping affect warcosts in Afghanistan as well. Given that any ground component will not be US, it does sound like a reasonable intervention.

  4. Well, it does appear that stabilizing the price of oil during a delicate economic recovery and advancing the prospects for democratic rule in the Middle East is not "vital" enough an interest for Mr. Fritz.

    You are assuming that our actions will do what you say. That is an assumption. We don't know for sure. We have no idea what the endstate will be and if it will stabilize the state or no. If that is the rationale, we will be there quite a long time indeed.

    I am skeptical, as is Mr. Fritz. But we shall see.

  5. Also, on the issue of costs, agreed with Vitesse that the issue of mediterranean stability in the face of climbing out of recession is a vital interest to at least Europe. I would assume the price of oil and shipping affect warcosts in Afghanistan as well. Given that any ground component will not be US, it does sound like a reasonable intervention.

    It's nice to know that the price of oil is a reasonable rationale for war now that it is European oil prices being affected....

    Sorry, had to go there, fnord. Standard blog snark. You know I am just playing rhetorical gotcha :)


  6. Madhu: ;-) I see your point, but would like to point out that the toppling of the statues were done *before* the invasion this time. Wich is the central point here, this is (if we play it right) a rescue mission, a white-hat mission, not a forced regime change. And the price of oil makes it economicaly worthwhile as well.

  7. Vitesse et PuissanceMarch 21, 2011 at 6:57 PM

    So, the interesting question is whether or not we have, in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, bred yet another "never again" generation that will hamper our ability to project power, good old fashioned hard power, in the world to advance our interests - and our values. In other words, I believe the Powell Doctrine, with its clear cut goals and exit strategies and its demand for near-100% sureity of success - is just a political sham. We never had that kind of sureity, and we never will. A piece of historically interesting trivia. In the Spring of 1951, the UN Forces had beaten back the Chinese Communist offensive, and threw them back to the 38th parallel. The Truman Adminstration went for the Communist bait - a truce that enabled the Chinese and Russians to shore up their position in Korea, and which stretched on through the restof the Truman Administration. The historical question is - what would have happened in 1951 if we had not let up, if we had continued to push north as was done the year before. Could we in fact have won the Korean War on anything like favorable terms ? So it is here. The matter lies undecided. We have the advantage. We can press the advantage, but "victory" in the strategic and political sense requires commitment, as well as a bit of luck. We should listen to the voices of our friends in the Middle East - if we have any friends left. Are they fer us or agin us today ? Here, for example, is an op-ed piece that appeared yesterday in the Jordan Times:


    As the editorial notes, the no-fly zone was imposed in the nick of time, just when Ghaddafi was poised to crush the rebellion once and for all. Like something out of a movie.

    And yet, we have all these naysayers, these Monday Morning quarterbacks here in the United States, who withhold support from our President and our government in time of need. Far from extending partisan politics ad infinitum, it is high time we came together as a nation, and supported the hard choices our government makes, instead of playing wimp policy pundits. Leave that sort of thing for the mainstream media.

    Speed and Power.

  8. @Jason Fritz: Good approach to interpret the recent intervention through the lens of the Powell Doctrine. I agree with your point that a superior framework to determine what precisely constitutes a "vital national interest" would surely be desirable, however, I think that this is hardly a fundamental flaw of the Powell Doctrine. No military doctrine can prescribe "whether or not to intervene" as this ultimately remains a political decision, taken according to a whole number of criteria, many of which are hard to predict in the context of a long term analysis of national interests. The upheaval in the Middle East shows how any longterm analysis can be rendered obsolete in part or totally in a matter of days or even hours, forcing quick re-assessment and improvisation.

    Attempts to formulate a military doctrine that tells you "when" to intervene were especially prevalent in the domain of nuclear strategy, where, while ignoring political, social and economic factors, some analysts just compared capabilities and deduced the necessity of military action if this or that "vital" capability was threatened. For me this is an example of the limited use of any military doctrine prescribing "when" to intervene. Of course, the military definitely has to be involved in establishing what the vital interests are, but I don't think that it can, by itself, define what they are and be it only for the lack of ressources that would be necessary for such an enterprise.
    I write all this without even touching upon the horrificly complex task of defining the term "vital".

    Ultimately, as you pointed out, the doctrine remains a useful analytical instrument. Unfortunately, even at that, it is often not tapped to its fullest, just regarding factors like escalation, war aims and force committment.

  9. Hi, I tried to post a longer comment without success. Is there a certain low word limit to each contribution? Don't get me wrong it's not pages that I wanted to post. I get a notification that the comment has been posted but as soon as I come back to the page the comment is gone.

  10. Sorry PencilPusher, but your comment was held up in spam for some reason.

  11. Gulliver, thanks for the info! I was already at the point of inculpating my technical incompetence.