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A Doctrine Left Behind View other pieces in "The New York Times"
By Mark Danner November 21, 2004
Tags: politics | Foreign Affairs Print

It seemed somehow fitting, and fittingly sad, that Colin Powell saw his resignation accepted as secretary of state on the day marines completed their conquest of Falluja, ensuring that the televised snapshots of glory drawn from his long public career would be interspersed with videotape of American troops presiding over scenes of urban devastation in a far-off and intractable war.

As I watched images from Mr. Powell's life flicker past, and as the fruits of the American victory became clear - a ravaged city; an elusive enemy, most of whom had escaped; a countrywide counterattack in which insurgents seized parts of Mosul - I felt a ghostly echo of words I could not quite grasp. Two days later, watching an American general declare that in Falluja our forces had "broken the back of the insurgency," I felt the sentences I'd struggled to recall suddenly take shape; I reached for Mr. Powell's memoir and found these bitter lines:

"Our senior officers knew the war was going badly. Yet they bowed to groupthink pressure and kept up pretenses. ...Many of my generation, the career captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels seasoned in that war, vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand."

Those plain words about Vietnam stand out with refreshing immediacy today, in this age of the destruction of the fact, when incontrovertible but unwelcome information is dismissed as partisan argument. What might the Colin Powell who wrote those words, or the younger officer in Vietnam who envisaged his future as a man who could never "quietly acquiesce," have said about our present war? What might "many of his generation" - who are indeed the men now commanding in Iraq - have said, had they not themselves quietly acquiesced?

They might have said that it is a deeply uncontroversial fact that the United States has from the beginning had too few troops in Iraq: too few to secure the capital or effectively monitor the borders or even police the handful of miles of the Baghdad airport road; too few to secure the arms dumps that litter the country; and too few to mount an offensive in one city without leaving others vulnerable.

They might have said that it is a deeply uncontroversial fact that the insurgency is spreading: when I arrived in Iraq 13 months ago, the insurgents were mounting 17 attacks a day; last week there were 150 a day. If the old rule of thumb about counterinsurgency warfare holds true - that the guerrilla wins by not losing and the government loses by not winning - then America is losing the Iraq war. The Iraqi insurgents have shown "outstanding resilience," as a Marine intelligence report compiled after Falluja put it, and "will continue to find refuge among sympathetic tribes and former regime members."

Finally, these imaginary officers who refused to "quietly acquiesce" might have said that it is a deeply uncontroversial fact that if indeed the war is going very badly, the fault belongs not with commanders in the field but with policymakers in Washington, who in conceiving and executing the war made a series of flagrant mistakes and then doggedly refused to acknowledge or correct them: the failure over many weeks to establish law and order in Baghdad and other cities; the failure to begin an effective reconstruction program, leaving many Iraqis without electricity, water and other basic supplies for months; and finally - according to James R. Schlesinger, a Republican and former secretary of defense, in his report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison - the failure not only "to plan for a major insurgency, but also to quickly and adequately adapt to the insurgency that followed after major combat operations."

It is a sad and familiar litany. But however widely these disasters are acknowledged, many Americans seem willing to treat them as if they were acts of God rather than the results of decisions that were made, and not made, by our officials - decisions that stem ultimately from a failure to coordinate the agencies and departments of American power.

This job falls, by statute and custom, to the national security adviser. And it is directly to that office that "the major interagency coordination problems between State and Defense and the striking ineffectiveness of the National Security Council" can be traced, in the words of Anthony Cordesman. Mr. Cordesman, a nonpartisan military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is one of many professionals who trace the disasters in Iraq back to failure to resolve conflicts between major government departments, as well as to debilitating "ideological efforts to shape the nation-building effort and personnel deployed to Iraq."

After Condoleezza Rice's elevation as Mr. Powell's successor, so much of the commentary seemed focused on her "closeness" to the president that it might have seemed the height of indiscretion to point out that she has been something of a disaster in her present job - a fact widely acknowledged among foreign policy professionals.

No one can say how many lives could have been saved had the responsible officials asked the right questions. As it happens, those questions had been laid out with courage and clarity back in 1992, by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, Colin Powell. While the Powell Doctrine is generally thought simply to prescribe the setting of clear objectives and the use of overwhelming force to achieve them, it also sets out a series of questions that policymakers must ask and answer before committing American lives to war. They make sobering reading today:

"Is the political objective we seek to achieve important, clearly defined and understood? Have all other nonviolent policy means failed? Will military force achieve the objective? At what cost? Have the gains and risks been analyzed? How might the situation that we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further and what might be the consequences?"

Faced with the war in Iraq, how might Mr. Powell have answered these questions? The main "political objective" the United States sought in Iraq, insofar as the president identified it, was to deprive Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. These always ghostly objects have long since evaporated; and no matter how often administration officials repeat that the French, Germans, Russians and the United Nations also judged that Mr. Hussein had weapons, this will not change the recalcitrant fact that these parties did not accept that they posed enough of a threat to support an immediate war.

Second, had "all other nonviolent means failed" to disarm Mr. Hussein? Though the president is still fond of declaring, as he did in the first presidential debate, that "Saddam Hussein had no intention of disarming," the rest of us have perhaps not entered too deeply into the post-factual age not to acknowledge what we now know: that in fact Saddam Hussein did disarm - and that the international inspectors on the scene, given time and sufficient diplomatic support, would eventually have confirmed this - just as David Kay, the administration's arms inspector, was able to do in the war's aftermath. As he allowed himself to say in a moment of near-suicidal honesty, in the matter of the weapons the Iraqis "were telling the truth." But it is in posing his last several questions that the younger Mr. Powell becomes a truly heartbreaking figure - the questions about "gains and risks" and about consequences. How do we evaluate these? We can speak of the 1,200 Americans dead and 9,000 wounded, or even of the thousands of Iraqis who have died. But what objective do we weigh them against?

And finally: "How might the situation that we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further and what might be the consequences?" The question is unflinching, but there is little evidence that the administration Secretary Powell served ever made a serious attempt to answer it. What would such an attempt have looked like? We know the answer; for in 1992 the general himself offered us an example of the "logical process" he had in mind, analyzing why President George H. W. Bush did not order our forces to take Baghdad in 1991:

"We must assume that the political objective of such an order would have been capturing Saddam Hussein," he wrote. "What purpose would it have served? And would serving that purpose have been worth the many more casualties that would have occurred? Would it have been worth the inevitable follow-up: major occupation forces in Iraq for years to come and a very expensive and complex American proconsulship in Baghdad? Fortunately for America, reasonable people at the time thought not."

These lines carry with them the whiff of far-off times, a lost world of pragmatism that pre-dated the religious trappings of the war on terrorism. Today, "the major occupation forces" Mr. Powell warned against are fighting a guerrilla war in a country on the Persian Gulf, through which half the industrial world's oil passes - a country far more strategically important than Vietnam.

Begun as an ideological crusade, the war has now settled into something bloody, murderous and crude, with no "exit strategy" in sight. The war's beginning, built on the threat of weapons that did not exist, and its ending, which flickered to life so temptingly on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Lincoln 18 months ago, have disappeared, leaving American troops fighting and dying in a kind of lost, existential desert of the present. We may not have yet reached Colin Powell's vision of "half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand." But we are well on the way.

Mark Danner is the author of "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror."


© 2022 Mark Danner