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No More Exits for Colin Powell

Has U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell abandoned his own doctrine?

February 13, 2003

Has U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell abandoned his own doctrine?


Who in the early 1990s worried that:

1. “Ruling Baghdad” would come only at “unpardonable expense in terms of money, lives lost and ruined regional relationships?”

2. Addressing the “inevitable follow-up,” who also asked whether Americans would really learn to live with “major occupation forces in Iraq for years to come?”

3. Finally, who argued that, “fortunately for America, reasonable people” would think such a scenario “would not have been worth the inevitable follow-up?”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has created headlines around the world with his freshly minted status as an Iraq war hawk. What has been missed in all the global hoopla is how — quietly, but stunningly — he has betrayed two of the three key parts of the Powell Doctrine.

This doctrine has guided U.S. foreign policy for almost two decades by now. As you may remember, in addition to the requirement of overwhelming force (which certainly is now being assembled for Iraq), he always emphasized two additional, equally critical factors.

Based on the Vietnam fiasco, General Powell highlighted the need to have clear objectives with a firmly established exit scenario — as well as strong support from the American people.

And on those two scores, the current U.S. administration receives an "F" and a "C-", respectively.

There is no denying the fact that — even though the discussion of an exit scenario has probably not been any more relevant ever than in the case of Iraq — the Bush Administration is doing its darndest that this crucial matter is not even discussed.

And regarding the strong support of the American people, things do not look much better. True, the support is there, but only if military action is taken with full UN backing.

And apparently, despite — or because of? — its constant threats issued to long-time allies, that is not something the Bush Administration is adept at assembling.

To recap, Secretary Powell now supports sending 200,000 U.S. soldiers to invade and occupy a large and complex Arab nation of 24 million people. And, to his benefit, let us assume that the initial phases of the invasion can avoid several terrifying catastrophes.

These catastrophes include such nightmares as the use of chemical or biological weapons, attacks on Israel, torching of the oil fields — and massive civilian casualties.

But even then, more dangers lie ahead. And Secretary Powell knows them well. As a matter of fact, he detailed those risks eloquently in his 1992 Foreign Affairs article in which he outlines his now famous doctrine.

"The Gulf War was a limited-objective war," he said only ten years ago. "If it had not been, we would be ruling Baghdad today — at unpardonable expense in terms of money, lives lost and ruined regional relationships."

Now, let's remember a couple of crucial facts. This for a war that had overwhelming backing from the Arab world. It was a war to free one Arab nation from another. Even under those benign circumstances, Mr. Powell defended its limited objective, arguing that we should not then have driven on to Baghdad.

This, he says, would have vastly increased American and Arab casualties. "Would it have been worth the inevitable follow-up: major occupation forces in Iraq for year to come, and a very expensive and complex American pro-consulship in Baghdad?" he asks. "Fortunately for America, reasonable people at the time thought not. They still do."

And people still do that today. But many of these "reasonable people" today are cowed by President Bush's electoral victories, the power of his and Colin Powell's oratory — and fears of being on the "wrong" side of a war.

For all these wrong reasons, they allow themselves to be lulled by rosy scenarios of quick and certain victory. It was only recently that some officials talked of U.S. troops withdrawing after as little as 30 to 90 days.

But now, one starts hearing quiet estimates of two years from military strategists. Funny thing, that the closer we are getting to the actual “event,” the longer the timeline becomes.

As the spokesman for the Pentagon's chief planner, Defense Under Secretary Douglas Feith, says, "The plan is to get it done as quickly as possible — and get out."

This is pure fantasy. No serious analyst doubts that Iraq will be in chaos after a war. Long-suppressed hatreds are already boiling to the surface.

Moreover, Iraq is surrounded by Arab nations whose leaders at best give grudging backing to U.S. war plans, but whose officials and public seethe at American arrogance.

"One sees little discussion of an occupation of Iraq, but it is the key element of the current debates.” This statement does not come from some wild-eyed peacenik, but a hard-eyed realist.

These are the words of former Reagan Administration Secretary of the Navy James Webb. Mr. Webb is one who is battle-scarred — and wisened up — due to his experiences in Vietnam.

He goes on to ask: Do we really want American troops "to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years?" And he adds: "Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay."

Mr. Webb is right. There is no exit strategy. Not just because it is hard to devise, but because many of the president's men do not want to leave Iraq.

For them, Iraq is just the beginning. American military forces will unleash a "democratic tsunami," they say.

The hope is that his tidal wave will transform all Arab governments — and, magically and somewhat mysteriously fortify the region for U.S. interests for decades to come.

This democratic revolution, of course, will require U.S. troops. As President Bush's National Security Strategy, released in September 2002, notes:

"The United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia — as well as temporary access arrangements for the long-distance deployment of U.S. troops."

These extensive deployments will require huge increases in defense spending, with the new budget already projecting a rise over the next few years to $500 billion annually from the current $350 billion.

And, as has been widely remarked upon, that budget does not even include any eventualities caused by the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

What is so astounding about all this is how and why Colin Powell decided to lend his formidable prestige to the silence of the pseudo-lambs — that is, the non-discussion of the exit scenario.

In going along in order to get along, he does not only betray his own carefully crafted guidance, crafted in the painful aftermath of Vietnam.

Worse, he is the only one in top administration circles who — based on his prestige and experience — could have slowed, if not stopped the invasion train.

By choosing not to do so, he is burdening himself not just with betraying his own legacy, but potentially the belief of the American people in the truthfulness — and forthrightness — of their leaders.

One has to wonder: Has Colin Powell now indeed signed on to this dangerous illusion of the new democratic imperialism? He himself is silent on the matter. That means that he has no answer — and no new (or better) doctrine.

Unfortunately, he has thrown his legendary caution to the wind — and decided not to stray far from the script he has been given. But the only thing that really matters is that neither President Bush nor the U.S. Secretary of State has put the complete strategy clearly before the American people.

They know all too well that to act in such a straightforward manner would jeopardize the shaky public support for invasion — which goes up and down from week to week, but is never solid.

Given that deplorable state of affairs, one wonders what will happen to this tenuous public support in the United States if Iraq becomes a protracted vengeful affair