X Close

America’s forgotten Powell Doctrine The man I knew refused to be defined by racism

It was Powell who righted the ship after the Gulf War (Photo by Rick Maiman/Sygma via Getty Images)

It was Powell who righted the ship after the Gulf War (Photo by Rick Maiman/Sygma via Getty Images)


October 22, 2021   5 mins

When Colin Powell strode into my small room across from the “immediate office” of Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger and asked me what I was up to, I told him that I was trying to rescue the Art of War from bureaucracy. His response was typically sarcastic: this must have been in 1985, when he was a two-star Major General serving as Weinberger’s Military Assistant, tasked with averting, or absorbing, the bigger civilian-military frictions within the Pentagon — as well as the occasional outright fight, too.

Weinberger was a Right-wing Republican who worked for another, Ronald Reagan, and even in those days Right-wing Republicans were automatically written off as racists. But I never detected the slightest bit of discomfort in Powell’s demeanour, perhaps because neither Weinberger nor Reagan had any doubts about his ability: after leaving the Pentagon for a career-required Corps command once he was promoted to Lieutenant-General, Powell was summoned back to Washington by Reagan to serve as his National Security Advisor. That Powell was the first black man to run the “inter-agency” National Security Council was not much mentioned at the time, as far as I can recall, except perhaps in the vernacular press that I do not read.

More important was the impossible job at hand: in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, Reagan’s entire presidency was in question. To outsiders who did not know any better, senility seemed the most charitable explanation for the President’s active support for an insane caper that ended at Tehran’s airport — and which could have left a very senior US official in Iranian custody.

His predecessor Carlucci, under Chief of Staff  Howard Baker, ex Senate Majority Leader no less, stopped the shipwreck, but it was Powell who righted the ship along with Reagan himself, and to such good effect that the faithful Reaganauts who had been plotting a backdoor exit from the White House for their hero when the scandal exploded suddenly found themselves discussing the possibility of the first third-term President since Roosevelt: Reagan’s ascent in the public opinion polls was astounding.

The famous Powell doctrine enunciated in 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, weas that if the US goes to war, it must not play “controlled escalation” games as it did, disastrously, in Vietnam. If force had to be used, it was best used on the largest possible scale, to quickly end the war rather than start it.

But there was also an undeclared Powell doctrine, not for the nation but for himself: prejudice exists; but if it can only be inferred because it is not visibly enacted, just ignore it. Do not sacrifice your own advancement to try to re-educate the malevolent and the ignorant; do not start a scandal that will only exacerbate the problem.

When his boss, Caspar Weinberger, complained in a Senate Hearing that the Senators were ignoring his own Secretarial advice and listening instead to the strategic lucubrations of a “PhD with a foreign accent” — he was referring to me, testifying about my book The Pentagon and the Art of War in a debate about the 1987 Defense Reorganization Act the book called for — Powell told me not to kvetch (he grew up with Yiddish speakers in the Bronx). Just be happy that the Senators are listening to you, he said, and that we will finally be able to re-organise the Pentagon.

But it was not until decades later, in a chance meeting aboard a transatlantic flight, that he told me why he was so little agitated by the subtle racial tensions of the Reagan years. As a battalion commander in Vietnam, he was recruited on a number of occasions by more senior officers to avert racial tensions among the troops, to avoid violence not with fists or even handguns but with fragmentation grenades or even M.16s.

For him, that was the end result of McNamara’s political science: a war not only endless but nonsensical, in which the same village might be flooded with economic aid, propagandised by a provincial team, bombed with napalm to destruction and then rebuilt. Hence his personal approval of Col. Warden’s “Instant Thunder” plan for the 1991 Iraq war: bomb every military target day after day to break up Iraq’s logistics, knock out bases and destroy as many armoured vehicles as possible. Then launch an all-out armoured offensive, force Saddam Hussein’s surrender and retreat from Kuwait — and bring the troops back home.

As a result of the 1987 Defense Reorganization Act, Powell was the first Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff who was in the actual chain of command. And although he was too tactful to order the Army and Marine field commanders about as the subordinates they were, when the Marines started nibbling at Kuwait before the two weeks of bombing was done, he made sure that it was no more than a photo-op. Ignoring the majority view in Washington that air power always disappoints (because it did in Vietnam) he understood that it was best to hollow out an enemy before moving the tanks forward. That was the Powell “first” that really matters: not that he was the first black US military chief, but the first and so far only US military chief since 1945 to win a war.

The last thing that Powell thought would happen was the disastrous repudiation two decades later of all that was learned in Vietnam and all that was demonstrated in the 1991 war: that American military power can destroy high-contrast targets anywhere and can defeat enemies that assemble in conveniently targetable mass formations — but cannot defeat insurgents. As Powell well knew, the “counterinsurgency warfare” peddled by generals with PhDs was never more than military malpractice, as Afghanistan 2021 showed yet again.

Over the past week, every obituary of Powell has interrupted its praise to condemn his tenure as Secretary of State (another first for a black man that Powell himself hardly celebrated) because it was his approval that made the 2003 invasion of Iraq politically feasible.

As usual, the media criticises the intelligence malfeasance that trapped Powell — the failure to recognise that Saddam was only pretending to be developing nuclear weapons — as opposed to the inability of the over-staffed, over-funded intelligence community to recognise that if Saddam Hussein and his regime were removed, what would ensue was not “democracy” but a Hobbesian war of all against all as different factions killed each other. (When I testified accordingly before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just before the war, the pro-war witness call me a “racist” who denied that Iraqis could sustain a democracy, just as the Germans and Japanese did after 1945…)

Then there was the fact that an Iraq in civil war would not be able to resist Iran. So there were ultimately two choices: stay out of Iraq, or convert the US Army into a 700,000-strong Mesopotamian constabulary forever. When Army Chief of Staff Shinseki said exactly that in a Congressional Hearing, he received zero support from the Intelligence Community, so Rumsfeld & Co ridiculed him with impunity for something he emphatically did not say — that 700,000 American soldiers were necessary to defeat the Iraqi Army — and denied him the customary extra year.

That was Colin Powell’s world on the eve of the 2003 war that would tarnish his reputation. As a Secretary of State, he could not apply the Powell doctrine to flood Iraq with troops. What he should have done — as he was the first to recognise in the aftermath — was to give a simple choice to Bush: Mr President, either give up the dream of a US-made democracy in Iraq or send in 700,000 troops, which cannot be done.

If the intelligence community had realised and transmitted what was happening in Iraq, Powell could have calmed the war fever with a phone call. Without that support, Powell couldn’t turn harshly against Bush, who was not only the President but also in effect a family friend, from the days of his father’s vice-presidency.

As it was, the second Iraqi war became an agony for him that never actually ended — very poor recompense for a life well-lived from the time that he packed boxes in a Bronx shop as a teenager. Characteristically, Powell kept in touch with the fatherly owner (who urged him to study on at all costs) and then with his sons, all through the years.

I only met Powell now and again over years, and it was only early on, and then in 2003, that those meetings were charged with much significance. But his death is still a real blow. I miss him already.


Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.

ELuttwak

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

18 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

I enjoyed this article. I’m not sure how objective is the author’s assessment of Powell since he obviously regarded the general as a friend, but I do think this article provides insight into the circumstances surrounding Powell’s apparent support of the Iraq invasion. If nothing else, the author was an insider to those events.
I still remember discussing the Iraq invasion with a neighbor (sadly, now deceased) while we waited for the morning bus to work. She asked why we were invading and we briefly discussed the suggestion that Saddam was developing nukes. Then she asked, “So how are we going to get out?” I had no answer to that one. If two ordinary people at a bus stop could figure out the key flaw in the plan, why couldn’t the giant brains in the Pentagon, CIA and government do the same?

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It’s not a ‘key flaw’ at all. You could say that about every war. The fact is, the winner of every war imposes a settlement on the losers. Obama chose not to do that, and withdraw unilaterally, throwing away nine years, hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. He did it for stupid ideological reasons, not reasons of state. But then the West has no idea how to do anything effectively any more.

Friedrich Tellberg
Friedrich Tellberg
2 years ago

Thank you. A beautiful and informative picture of an interesting historical figure.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago

I liked the human warmth of the article reminding us that those at the top are human too.

On the general theme of the Iraq invasion I would like to see discussion on the strategic opportunism on the part of the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

“was not much mentioned at the time, as far as I can recall, except perhaps in the vernacular press that I do not read.”

haha… I quit reading after this as the article is obviously weighty and would have a lot which interested me, but this throw away line was so fun I could not return to the serious stuff…….

‘British India, the Vernacular Press Act (1878)’ was to stop native News Papers spreading anti British sentiment, or even facts, and imposed a system of ‘Fact Checking’ Censorship exactly along the lines of our current News system, NYT, BBC, CNN, Google, Youtube, and Twitter do. Anything against the hard implicit Liberal Bias is deemed to not be NOT true, or Harmful, or Wrong, and thus canceled, and deleted, including the writers.

History rhyming as it were, although my guess is the writer is not using the words in this way, but more to mean the ‘Gutter Press, or more plebeian news outlets of those days. But a great fit – as the Social Media today is really the new Imperial Government Mouthpiece, and it completely censors any wrongness, true or not, against our Postmodernist Liberal Elites, just as the Act of 1878 did against the British Empire.ï»ż

Dennis Lewis
Dennis Lewis
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You really shouldn’t have quit reading the article.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago

Like Powell, Luttwak was a member of good standing in the deep state before time passed him by.

rick stubbs
rick stubbs
2 years ago

This is a very apt characterization of Powell’s contribution to US military doctrine in the post Vietnam era. He was foremost among the officers who embraced the strategic implications of what the US Army once called ‘Lessons Learned’, e.g., that incremental escalation and nation building are dangerous whirlpool’s that are unsustainable.
Gulf War I demonstrated what military power could successfully achieve given reasonable objectives and the political will to exercise overwhelming force. It also vindicated the concept of a professional volunteer force. The rush to war in Iraq in 2003 was a political decision, not Powell’s, that both parties voted for with a few exceptions. I do not think he could have resisted it given the circumstances of the time.

Last edited 2 years ago by rick stubbs
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Interesting article

Nicholas Rynn
Nicholas Rynn
2 years ago

A third term Regan Presidency? Somewhat surprised nobody considered the 22nd amendment to the Constitution limiting an individual to two terms. It’s all in the detail.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

Personally I find it amazing that Powell is classified as black. He has got slightly curly hair and a slightly less European nose than normal and that, at least in America, is all it takes. Interesting to see that Americans are still applying the “one drop” rule, even when an understanding that f genetics makes a mockery of racial classification in this way.

Paul Davies
Paul Davies
2 years ago

I judge the character of people I encounter by the way that they treat ordinary people who they deal with during the day. I have always had respect for Powell as a man. On a flight in Asia, after his retirement, he and his wife sat behind me. I recognised him and nodded a greeting then sat down. Over the next few hours I could not help but hear his interaction with the cabin crew and his wife. Polite and respectful of others, – he was a brilliant self made man, but he was, as far as I could see, a gentleman.

Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
2 years ago

Considering his work covering up for and lying about US war crimes in Vietnam and Iraq, it would have been a bit hypocritical for Powell to complain about racism.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

What tosh! What a poser, what an international, intellectual grifter! A celebration of inside the Beltway intrigue. We who live and work inside the Beltway are so smart, we know better.
Except you don’t, and I refer to J Bryant’s comment about the complete lack of an exit strategy. 
This article is poorly written–what one would expect from an author with a Phd who has published exclusively nonsense.
Powell was a putz (Yiddish). He was a disgrace, a toady to the Bushies, someone who was a massive beneficiary of so-called “positive discrimination.” An incompetent political hack who only rose because of his skin color–which wasn’t even that black. Wasn’t there some Scottish in his background?
The first Gulf War was not so much a war as mass murder. And it was entirely unnecessary, as 1. Kuwait really is/was the 19th province of Iraq, despite some Brits randomly drawing lines in the sand last century, and 2. the US, through US Ambassador April Glaspie, also a putz, told Saddam right before to go ahead and invade Kuwait, not an American problem (think I’m kidding? look it up!); 3. The first President Bush initially tried to sell the war to protect the “valiant Kuwaiti people who were fighting so hard against the invaders…..” This didn’t work when news coverage of “the valiant Kuwaitis” were seen with their Mercedes loaded to the gills with TVs, gold and other kit fleeing, to Saudi, I think….” When reality undermined this lie, President Bush said, “OK, you were right, this really is a war about oil,” and it was also about protecting the Saudis–great friends of the Bush family (See, 9/11). Trivia Question: Saudi Arabia changed its national anthem at this time in recognition that if not for the USA they would be speaking Arabic with Iraqi accents. What was the new anthem you ask? A: Onward Christian Soldiers.
The first Gulf War led to the second Gulf War, also mass murder. “Saddam tried to kill my Daddy….”
Powell was a disgrace and a coward. Can we stop with the hagiographies? He could have resigned when it counted, as the US and maybe the world was, unaccountably, under his spell at the time, as it would later be with another fake, Obama. Powell’s resignation would have stopped the second Gulf War, and changed the course of history. But he didn’t. Coward.
Rot in hell!

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

A bit harsh but who knows you may have a point.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

Cheers, mate, and thank you for keeping an open mind. You might see my thoughts below.

Nicholas Rynn
Nicholas Rynn
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Good heavens got out of the wrong side of bed or is Friday spleen day in your house?

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rynn

With respect, I posted much of the same information on another CP obituary, (hagiography?), and it was quite well received. A bit gobsmacked that this had such a different reaction. I even copied “rot in hell” from another commenter, because I was afraid of the censor, but since his post made it, why not?
No apologies: I said it, I meant it, I stand behind it. The major difference is that this one attacks this foreign grifter as much as CP. Zhalimid Khalizad is another example of exactly the type that America all too often falls for–an Afghan poser/grifter/fraud and neocon who ingratiated himself with the Bushies and helped them start wars and commit war crimes. Does anyone think he was really representing America’s interests in the Middle East?
I don’t.
Another example is Orthodox Jew Martin Indyk, who became America’s Ambassador to Israel 15 minutes after becoming a US citizen. Does anyone think he was representing America’s interests in the Middle East?
I don’t.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Joyce