Sunday, March 20, 2011

Whither the Powell Doctrine

How does the action against Libya stand up to the lauded Powell Doctrine?

Copy and Paste from Wikipedia:
The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:

1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
Throw this in too:
Powell has expanded upon the Doctrine, asserting that when a nation is engaging in war, every resource and tool should be used to achieve decisive force against the enemy, minimizing US casualties and ending the conflict quickly by forcing the weaker force to capitulate.
From this, I add the following conditions:
(A) Decisive force used.
(B) Minimal US Casualties
(C) Quick resolution through enemy capitulation.

Let's run down the checklist...
  • National security interests?  I guess so. Libya has oil, and Qaddafi has American blood on his hands.
  • Clear attainable objective?  No, and I'll come back to that in a bit.
  • Risks and costs analyzed? Probably not, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt and overlook it.
  • Non-violent measures exhausted?  Yes.
  • Plausible exit strategy?  No.
  • Consequences considered? Maybe.
  • Support of the American people? I think so, for now anyway.
  • Broad international support.  Yes.
  • Decisive force? No.
  • Minimal US Casualties? Yes, probably.
  • Quick resolution through capitulation? Probably not.

The overarching problem is that there are two potential objectives, and each objective creates different Powell-esque difficulties.

Assume the stated objective, which is the prevention of a humanitarian disaster, namely the ruthless slaughter of civilians in rebel territories.  That is a conceivably attainable objective, but commits coalition forces to enforcing a no-fly zone (and possibly other actions) indefinitely, thus violating the "exit strategy" criterion, and arguably the criteria about decisive force and quick resolution.

Assume what some believe is the unstated objective, that Bushian, Rumsfeldian expression, "regime change".  It should be obvious that decisive force is not currently deployed (and may not even be available).  It may or may not turn into "Iraq II" in that scenario, but a prolonged engagement with ambiguous results cannot be entirely discounted.

I don't think Powell's analysis is the be-all-end-all of military decision making, but it's interesting to me that this engagement seems to casually violate so many criticisms that Obama and others made of the Bush administration not too long ago.

I'm not saying this mission is doomed, just that it's poorly planned and poorly articulated. I can imagine a happy scenario where the coalition arms the rebels while providing a full range of air support functions, eventually leading to the overthrow of Qaddafi. But a lot of puzzle pieces need to come together for that to happen, and that's certainly not what's being sold to the American public right now.

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