Why America Should Return to the Powell Doctrine (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

The Powell Doctrine offers a series of criteria that can guide the U.S. to a more restrained foreign policy that will yield better results in future conflicts. Historically, when the criteria have been considered – regardless of whether policymakers knew that they were part of the Powell Doctrine the U.S. was able to avoid quagmires and achieve its objectives.

The invasion of Panama (1989) and the First Gulf War (1990-1991) show how the doctrine has had success when it called for armed intervention. The wars in the Balkans and Somalia show how the Powell Doctrine limits American involvement conflicts when all criteria are not met. Similarly, the successful U.S. diplomatic intervention in Haiti (1994) shows how crucial it is to exhaust all non-military options before commencing military activity, a key element of the Powell Doctrine. In contrast, the wars in Afghanistan (2001-) and Iraq (2003-) are evidence of the disastrous results that can occur if the doctrine’s criteria is not applied. Contrary to criticism, the doctrine can be applied quickly. However, prioritizing the views of Pentagon officials over those of elected policymakers remains a serious obstacle to its implementation.

To be practicable, the doctrine needs to be advocated for by Congress. When the application of the doctrine calls for armed intervention, its other criteria must be utilized to craft a narrow Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). If Congress were to adopt this approach, it would combine a historically successful conceptual framework (the Powell Doctrine) with concrete policies (narrower AUMFs) to guide the difficult foreign policy decisions of the future.