Long before he would become America’s 65th secretary of state, Colin Powell was a young Army officer who served two combat tours in Vietnam. There, Lt. Powell held in his arms a young American soldier whose body had been blown apart — and whose life would, in a few hours, be ended — by a land mine. Colin Powell understood the responsibility and the pain of comforting the dying, and of then writing a personal letter to the parents of the soldier whose remains would be coming home in a pine box, because powerful and important men in Washington had determined it was necessary for young Americans to fight and to die in the rice paddies of Vietnam in order to stop international communism.
From such painful, personal experiences would come, a quarter-century later, when he was serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, the “Powell doctrine,” which argued that the United States should only as a last resort, and only after all other nonviolent options had been tried, send our men and women into combat. Powell insisted that before such action, our vital national security interest be threatened by the identified adversary, and that we take action only when the U.S. forces were overwhelmingly disproportionate to the forces of the adversary; and only after the mission was fully understood by and strongly supported by the American public; and only when the U.S. mission had real international backing. Finally, before any such an action was launched, there had to be a coherent and agreed-upon exit strategy for the U.S. troops.
The Powell doctrine was accepted and followed in the first Gulf War after Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces had invaded their oil-wealthy neighbor Kuwait. Republican President George H.W. Bush, with Democrats in control of the Congress, won House and Senate support as well as the backing of the United Nations Security Council for military action to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. The United States also created a coalition of 39 nations and persuaded Saudi Arabia, Germany, Kuwait and Japan to pay 81% of the costs of $61 billion. The United States deployed 540,000 troops; the war lasted less than three months; 383 Americans died.
That was 1991. Sadly, in 2001, when the U.S. was attacked on Sept. 11 and another Bush was in the White House and Colin Powell was secretary of state, the United States ignored the Powell doctrine. The cost of having done that is evident everywhere around us: As of this writing, some 18 bloody years later, 6,989 American families have buried a son, father, brother, husband, wife, daughter, sister or mother who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. An America that had taught for centuries that “war demands equality of sacrifice” forgot that value and instead asked no sacrifice of the privileged and the prosperous. Instead of the traditional American response of tax increases to pay for the cost of the wars, tax cuts of more than $6 billion — overwhelmingly skewed, more than 65% of them to the richest Americans — have been the signature of these wars that required no home-front rationing, or even required civilians to pay attention to the fighting and the dying of their fellow Americans.
Forget any new, bigger Fourth of July parade or empty “thank you for your service” lip service. Let’s be honest with one another: The Powell doctrine is dead, and we Americans (most of us, anyway), have shown ourselves unwilling, as we once were, “to pay any price, to bear any burden, to meet any hardship ... to assure the survival of liberty.”
Mark Shields is a political columnist and commentator who provides weekly political analysis and commentary for the “PBS News Hour.”