commentary

(Proceedings, a magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute)

March 17, 2010

Dueling Doctrines: Mullen vs. Powell? Or Mullen & Powell vs. Rumsfeld?

by James Dobbins

Reflecting changes in the American approach to counterinsurgency, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen recently enunciated a new and apparently more restrained doctrine for the use of armed force. But was his March 3 speech at Kansas State University really a repudiation of the so-called Powell Doctrine?

Mullens's statement that "we must not try to use force only in an overwhelming capacity, but in the proper capacity, and in a precise and principled manner" has invited immediate comparisons with the doctrine put forth 18 years ago by an earlier head of the Joint Chiefs. Writing a year after the First Gulf War, General Colin Powell argued against incrementalism in the use of military force and urged instead its decisive application in circumstances where all other options had been exhausted.

Nearly all commentary on the Mullen speech has contrasted his call for the discriminate use of force with what is recalled as Powell's emphasis on its overwhelming application. In fact, Powell employed the term "decisive" rather than "overwhelming," and enunciated his doctrine not in support of Desert Storm, but rather in explanation of the decision not to subsequently invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.

In fact, Powell's only use of the term "overwhelming" was in a sentence in which he maintained that overwhelming victory need not always be the American military objective.

Mullen certainly would not support the indecisive use of force, nor would Powell advocate its indiscriminate application. So there is no inherent contradiction between the two doctrines, rather a difference of emphasis.

Indeed, there is even less difference than that, for Mullen and Powell are really talking about two different things. Mullen in his recent remarks was not talking about the size or capabilities of the military contingent deployed, but rather the nature of the lethal force applied, in particular its precision and discrimination.

Powell, by contrast, was urging the employment of forces sufficiently large and capable as to minimize the amount of firepower which would actually have to be employed.

"Overwhelming force," although not a term Powell ever used, is nevertheless not incompatible with the restrained employment of firepower. The more precise and discriminating one's application of firepower, the more decisive the result is likely to be. The larger and more capable one's force, the less violence it will need to achieve its objective—with no violence at all being an achievable ideal, if the force is so dominating as to serve as a deterrent to resistance. As Powell wrote in 1992, "when force is used deftly—in smooth coordination with diplomatic and economic policy—bullets may never have to fly."

Both the Powell and Mullen doctrines do stand in contrast to the transformative efforts pushed by former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

Transformation, as pursued by the Rumsfeld Pentagon, had among its objectives the reduction of the size of the deployed force needed to accomplish any given task—by trading manpower for firepower, mobility, and precision. The resultant Rumsfeld Doctrine, if it may be so called, was quite effective in standup battles against less well-equipped and less well-trained adversaries in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But the slimmed-down, high-tech forces initially deployed there proved grossly inadequate to deter the subsequent emergence of violent resistance movements and to defeating the resultant insurgencies.

Both the Powell and Mullen doctrines provide guidelines of enduring value for the deployment and employment of the American military. Mullen certainly has not been arguing for the Vietnam-style incrementalism against which Powell was reacting 18 years ago; nor, one expects, would Powell argue today against the discriminate application of firepower that Mullen is advocating.

And both Mullen and Powell likely recognize that the American forces originally deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq were both too underwhelming in size and too indiscriminate in their application of firepower to achieve decisive results. From failed doctrines, at least there are lessons to be learned.


James Dobbins, a former Assistant Secretary of State, was special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo during the Clinton administration, and the first envoy for Afghanistan in the George W. Bush administration. He directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.

This commentary appeared in Proceedings, a magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute on March 17, 2010