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Powell on "The Powell Doctrine"

How “The Powell Doctrine” developed from two important principles of war: clear objective and use of necessary and appropriate force to execute that objective:  The Gulf Wars, Vietnam, Somalia. General Colin Powell in conversation with Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson from the aspen institute and i'm here with General Colin Powell form a four-star general national security advisor chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and Secretary of State what is the Powell doctrine the Powell doctrine is something that was invented by the media there is no such Powell doctrine written in any military manual and so I'm flattered to have a doctor named after me I will not you know discourage people from using it but it comes really from basic traditional classical military thinking and if you set aside what the reporter called the Powell doctrine and go back to where I got it from I got off to my training as an officer there are nine principles of war that our doctrine in the armed forces of the United States and there are two of those principles that I consider overriding one is called a principle of the objective what is it we're trying to do you just don't send forces in what are we trying to accomplish I have a clear statement of purpose what we're trying to accomplish the objective and then the second principle of war that is the Powell doctrine is a principle of mass you bring all of your forces together in a way that will achieve a decisive victory I've been misquoted often as saying that's overwhelming doesn't have to be overwhelming it just has to be decisive it means you don't try to just meet the objective of you know getting forces there you make sure you put enough in there to achieve a decisive result for example in the first Gulf War I was able to tell President Bush first one that there's no doubt in anybody's mind we will prevail we put something in there can't be defended against that's my preferred way of doing it but it's not doctrine so much as it is guidance think about this mr. president mr. secretary go through this analysis before you make a decision and if you find that this analysis does not solve the problem that you have will then do what you think is right but it's just a way of thinking about a problem and I have used that same thought process in the State Department in the military in my White House days and as a second lieutenant of infantry 60 years ago and so the first part of it is to have a clear objective the second part is to use the necessary force to accomplish that executive force not being necessarily military force it could be sanctions it could be all the other tools that we've talked about but if you're going to apply those tools then apply them in a way that's going to get a decisive result and sometimes it's said that part of your doctrine is knowing how you're going to get out of something you got in I always like to think through the problem something that's part of my military training what happened how does this end what do you hope to have when it's all over and can you achieve it with the force that you have available to you if you can't maybe you shouldn't do it and I've always tried to create a plan that lets you achieve what that objective is and know how to get out of it the first gulf war is a perfect example where President Bush 41 said that we're going to kick the Iraqi army out of Kuwait but we're not going to back it this is what Congress authorized this is what the UN authorized and this is what I believe and so that was clear and once we did that and we brought it report to him that we had done it we were going to fight for another couple days he said we've done it why fight anymore and contrast that with the Second Gulf War the Second Gulf War the problem there was that we were going to take out Saddam Hussein and do something about the weapons of mass destruction which turned out not to be there but we didn't know that at the time we were making the decisions the problem there is that it was not thought through there was some who believe that all you had to do was to take Baghdad the government would collapse and suddenly a new government would spring up so we didn't have sufficient resources or troops right we did not have sufficient troops and as I said to President Bush 43 george w bush almost eight months before mr. president you have to understand when you take out a government you become the new government and so it's a question of how does this movie end we own it we own it it's called a Pottery Barn rule you break it you own it how did that come out of Vietnam your lessons there did that help inform the fact is Vietnam seemed not to have been conducted with these principles in mind I think that's a fair statement and I think many of the military leaders of that time the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went into retirement deeply disturbed that they didn't make it clear to the president what it would take and we just kept piling on more forces more forces more forces until when we had 500,000 there and general Westmoreland the commander asked for even more and Lyndon Johnson as you know Walter said no that's it but that's it wasn't enough and what we didn't realize and this is an important point what we didn't realize is that one has to be very careful getting into a conflict with somebody who was prepared to lose a lot more than you are getting into a conflict with is not with just a fixed enemy would say as we now face in many parts of that part of the world of at least you're fighting a movement it's sometimes said that the Powell doctrine is an example of realism and that jill more reluctant to use military force for humanitarian or idealistic purposes you want a clear definition of national interest is that correct and if so explain it's not only not correct it's not true I use military force for hurricane relief in Florida I've done it for riots in Los Angeles I've done it for tsunamis in the Far East the President did it recently for Ebola the military forces of the United States have incredible capability not only for war but for peace and for humanitarian work do you make a distinction between humanitarian interventions overseas and interventions meant to protect America's strategic interests and is there a different standard you apply if a humanitarian intervention is for the purpose truly of humanitarian relief fine but if it crosses the line after that and goes into say building a democracy or taking sides in what is an internecine conflict within that country that's where I start to get reluctant the perfect example this Somalia when President Bush George Herbert Walker Bush 41 decided in November December the end fourth year in office that we had to do something about Somalia because people were starving to death the food was there we just couldn't get it into the country and he said we've got to do something this is a manatorian disaster and as chairman I said we can do it and we once again used a large decisive force we were even criticized for telling the press that our seals were coming ashore done deliberately to scare the enemy and then we went in with a large force and we solve the problem within weeks and as I was leaving office nine months later he was still there I had said to President Clinton and also to the Secretary of State at the time we need to either figure out what we're doing in Somalia or get out of there because it had been converted by the White House and by the United Nations into a mission of creating a democracy where one had never existed before there were no institutions for a democracy and if that's where we're getting into we'd better realize what this might take so you think that using the military for nation building and creating democracies is something we should be careful about in cautious about not that we can't do it we just have to be very careful make sure we know what we're getting into and the two perfect examples of how it worked perfectly is Japan and Germany and Italy Japan and Germany principally but we didn't send an ambassador to run Japan we sent MacArthur General MacArthur and there were generals who were running Germany and we also were dealing with two countries with a single culture and a bureaucracy a civil service and people who knew how to obey authority because they've been doing it for several hundred years and so it was easy to stabilize his two countries and show them what democracy is all about and they had a system ready to accept it because they accepted other terrible things in their pasts this they could accept and live with and 70 years later to striking Democratic successes thank you