Vietnam Made Him; Review of Colin Powell's My American Journey

Vietnam Made Him; Review of Colin Powell's My American Journey

Mini Teaser: As members of the Washington elite go, Colin Powell is an exceptionally attractive person.

by Author(s): Henry S. Rowen

As members of the Washington elite go, Colin Powell is an exceptionally attractive person. Apart from his great skills as a tactician and manager, and his talent as a politician, he has an outstanding zest for life that causes him to stand out. George Shultz, who worked closely with him, and who is a good judge, wrote in his account as Secretary of State, Turmoil and Triumph: "Colin Powell . . . was wonderful, savvy, smart, straightforward, and energetic. . . . As deputy [National Security Advisor], Powell had proved to be extraordinarily knowledgeable and gifted intellectually. He had a great touch with Congress."

Unhappily, he also reveals a mindset that produced poor judgments on some major events that occurred on his watch as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Given the hoopla about his presidential prospects, many readers looked for clues on the kind of president he might make, and for his positions on such current issues as affirmative action, abortion, welfare, and the like. The hot button issues aside, his book does tell us important things about the capacities and attitudes Powell would bring to high political office, if he ever seeks it.

Most Americans by now must know the basic outline of his life: How a black boy from the South Bronx--before it became Fort Apache--progressed from the New York City schools, to high achievement in the ROTC program at City College of New York, and to a successful career in the army, ending up with the highest rank of the military establishment (the first ROTC member to achieve that position).

What comes through clearly in this book is the importance of a supportive family, a factor missing in the lives of many children today--and not only black ones. Nor is it a coincidence that his family came from the British West Indies, a region that has produced many successful people in American society. Also prominent is the role of religion in his family life. In short, Colin Powell's life exemplifies everything that we have learned--too often through its absence--about the importance of family and religion for the good life and success.

Promising army officers are much schooled and Powell was no exception. He went through the training and educational hoops for those doing well: various training programs, the Army Command and General Staff College, the National War College. Somewhat out of the ordinary was his decision to get an MBA rather than an advanced degree in international relations, the latter a common (and not always fortunate) choice for promising officers. If he ever becomes president he may be the first with this degree on his resume. The reader learns about his standing in many of these schools--and for good reason, because he usually did well. He also went twice through the harsh school of the Vietnam War, and as was true of many officers, and civilians as well, the experience was a searing one that formed his views on the proper use of military power. And, not least, Powell became a White House Fellow, a signal achievement.

The characteristic that shows most clearly is a competitive personality. He comes across as an achiever, someone who has made the most of his natural gifts. His managerial, operational, and communication skills were manifest to me from my vantage point on the staff of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.

One example, described in Powell's book, illustrates his tactical skills and ingenuity. In December 1989, a coup attempt got underway in the Philippines against the government of Coraz-n Aquino. We were all wrestling with the task of saving her government but not intervening too overtly and, especially, not killing any Filipinos, for that would have damaged future U.S.-Philippine relations. Powell (together with our Pacific Commander, Hunt Hardisty) came up with the idea of our F-4 aircraft based at Clark Field buzzing rebel aircraft on the ground but not attacking them unless they tried to take off. Powell rightly describes this as the successful use of "calibrated force linked to a specific goal."

Another episode concerned his--and Cheney's--operating methods and relations between them. Powell, shortly after becoming Chairman, describes Cheney as reprimanding him for restricting the channels of information. I had found that penetrating the Joint Staff for information was not impossible but it took a lot of work. So around that time I sat at Cheney's round table in his office with the two of them and told Cheney that if he wanted better help from me, they had to share more information. Powell just sat there like the cat that had swallowed the canary. Cheney valued input from various quarters (as an episode in the Gulf War mentioned below describes), but he retained a tight working relationship with Powell. They were both high-class bureaucratic/political pros--but Cheney had a broader vision.

That observation bears on Powell's views on strategy. The reader is repeatedly told that we should have clearly defined aims before committing American soldiers to combat, and also that any use of force should be decisive. These might seem to be unexceptional propositions, indeed necessary ones, but they are fraught with difficulty. This all-or-nothing doctrine, now dubbed the "Powell Doctrine", is actually the "Weinberger Doctrine" of 1984, named after Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger (when Powell was his military assistant), who proposed several conditions for the use of U.S. forces:

1. Our vital interests must be at stake.
2. We must commit enough forces to win.
3. We must have clearly defined political and military objectives.
4. We must continually reassess the relationship between our objectives and forces we have committed.
5. We must have reasonable assurance of the support of the American people.
6. U.S. forces must be committed to combat only as a last resort.

These theses were advanced in response to the disasters of the Vietnam War and the death of 241 Marines in Lebanon in October 1983. They were challenged by Secretary of State George Shultz, a former marine, who argued that there are many circumstances in which a more nuanced use of power is needed. As he put it in Turmoil and Triumph, this was "the Vietnam syndrome in spades, carried to an absurd level and a complete abdication of the duties of leadership. . . . The idea that force is used 'only as a last resort' means that by the time of use, force is the only resort, and likely a much more costly one than if used much earlier."

Indeed, one wonders how many historical uses of American forces would have met the Weinberger/Powell tests. Would we have sprung to the defense of South Korea in 1950, used the U.S. Navy to shield Taiwan later in the decade, held to a tactically indefensible position in Berlin, seen to the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in 1962, carried out the invasions of Grenada in 1983 or Panama in 1989, or put American flags on Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf and escorted them with U.S. Navy ships in 1987? Some people might respond "No, and rightly so", but the world would have been a more hostile place had the United States not pursued an activist defense policy.

Powell supports Weinberger's rules as a "practical guide" but expresses the reservation that making them public "would lead potential enemies to look for loopholes." While that is a fair point, there are deeper problems with the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine. Among these is the insistence that there be popular support for military action. That may seem reasonable in a democracy, but there are good reasons why we elect people to make occasionally unpopular decisions for us. Of course, if they mess up we can throw them out of office, and any war that goes on inconclusively for many months is bound to become unpopular. But estimating how popular a war might be several weeks or months later is not a good criterion for making decisions about military intervention.

There is no problem with Powell's injunction that we think hard about objectives before making commitments. Powell expresses admiration for Fred IklŽ's excellent book, Every War Must End, in which the former Undersecretary of Defense focuses on the common practice of governments getting into wars without thinking enough, if at all, about how they are going to end them. Powell is in favor of doing so, and one can--insistently--agree. However, asking how we are going to get out of a situation before we get in is still only a question, not an answer.

The emotional source of the Powell doctrine derives from Vietnam. It is reflected throughout in his hostility toward "civilian analysts." I was one of those analysts during part of that war and cannot claim any credit for trying to stave off disaster. But, as Charles Lane notes in the October 16 issue of The New Republic, Powell is too easy on the army. Powell writes: "When our time came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support." As Lane observes, the goal of expelling the North Vietnamese army from the South was not ambiguous, it was simply infeasible with the methods chosen and the army had much to do with the choice of those methods. There is plenty of blame to go around on Vietnam and it is being less than candid to claim that the army's fault lay entirely in its being passive before higher authority.

In the case of the Gulf War, at the outset it seems that Powell favored letting Iraq keep Kuwait and defending only Saudi Arabia. He plays down this point, but Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in The General's War quote him as follows: "The American people do not want their young dying for $1.50 gallon oil." That turned out to be a poor prediction of the response of the American people to the threat in the Gulf. There also has been much controversy over Powell's support for protracted economic sanctions instead of war to bring about the liberation of Kuwait. He refers to the fuss created by Robert Woodward's The Commanders, in which he is described as a supporter of sanctions. He denies this, arguing that it was simply a matter of exploring options, but his denials are unpersuasive. Gordon and Trainor report that Powell told Air Chief Marshall Sir Patrick Hine in October 1990 that he was willing to wait twelve to fifteen months, and possibly even two years, to see if sanctions would work. By then it was already clear that sanctions could not do the job. Had Iraqi forces been allowed to stay in Kuwait the consequences would have been grave. The defense of Saudi Arabia would have entailed the permanent stationing of American forces on the border of Kuwait and Iraq, a presence that would have been onerous and perhaps unsustainable for us, and possibly fatal to the Saudi regime. Fortunately Cheney and Bush had come to the firm view that the Iraqis had to be removed from Kuwait and that economic sanctions could not work quickly enough, or at all.

Once the President declared that force would be used, Powell fully dedicated himself to that goal. But that was not his only goal, nor was it that of Norman Schwarzkopf in Riyadh. They both also had very much in mind the restoration of the honor and credibility of the U.S. armed forces after the stigma of Vietnam. This was certainly a worthy goal, but it led them to the position that we should achieve a quick, overwhelming military victory in Kuwait and go home. That mindset contributed to their rejecting the proposal pushed by Cheney that our forces occupy the Western desert of Iraq in order to prevent the bombardment of Israel with Iraqi Scuds, a move that would not only have averted the risk of Israel's intervention in the war, but almost certainly would have led to Iraqi forces being withdrawn from Kuwait and perhaps to Saddam's overthrow. (See my "Inchon in the Desert" in the Summer issue of this journal.)

That mindset contributed to the war ending with Saddam still in power, and with much of his Republican Guard intact. This bears on Powell's insistence that when we commit forces to combat we should commit to win. What was victory? Kuwait was liberated, our military operations were carried out with enormous skill, and the reputation of the American military was greatly enhanced. Powell is at pains to point out that we had not undertaken to change the regime in Baghdad, had no UN mandate to do so, and that no member of the Bush team objected to ending the war when it did. But Saddam and the Baathists were left in power, the Shia rose up in a few weeks, having been encouraged to do so by Saudi and American radio broadcasts, and many were killed by the Republican Guards whom we had allowed to escape. As for the UN "legalities", we were operating under resolutions that included ensuring the "peace and stability" of the region; their absence was demonstrated in October 1994 when Iraqi forces again moved toward Kuwait.

Powell also exhibits skepticism verging on antipathy toward air power. Its enthusiasts oversell it, and its failures in Vietnam affected Powell's view of it, but he reveals a less than full understanding of the difference made by the current generation of smart weapons. Thus his description of planning the size of the ground force for the Gulf War does not reveal an understanding of the probable impact of our air dominance. It was as though there were two wars: the air one and the ground one. (Schwarzkopf shared the same split vision, and his history deals most sketchily with the air part of the war.) This didn't matter in the case of the Gulf War, because we had more than enough forces, but his skewed vision on airpower bears directly on the situation in Bosnia.

The initial and basic American error in the former Yugoslavia was made by George Bush when he declared that this was a problem for the Europeans to solve. Bush should have known that the Europeans could not agree among themselves on an effective strategy. That error was compounded by Bill Clinton, who dithered in a way that not only allowed Serbian aggression and genocide to continue, but also weakened America's reputation and credibility worldwide. (As Powell put it, the United States has acquired a reputation as an "incontinent political entity.") Our formally neutral posture has not been neutral in reality, for the UN sanctions on arms supply have favored the well-armed Serbs against the poorly-equipped Muslims. Powell and others who did not want to see American involvement bolstered their position by exaggerating the strength of the Serbs and, again, underestimating the effectiveness of airpower. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writing in the New Yorker, quotes Powell as follows: "Tito spent forty years building this military infrastructure so that it couldn't be bombed by the Red Air Force. This stuff is underground. Take out the artillery? This isn't like Desert Storm. You have hills, you have trees. You have a civilian population, you have churches, you have homes, you have schools, and they can park that artillery right next to any of that stuff and you can't bomb it. . . . You don't bomb people for credibility . . . you should use military force for achieving a specific military purpose that is linked to the achievement of a specific political purpose and goal."

In the same interview, Powell also credits the Serb case and Western indifference to its own stakes in the conflict:
"The biggest mistake was recognizing all these little countries when they started to decide they were independent. . . . The Serbs had very good reason to worry about being in a Muslim-dominated country. It wasn't just paranoia. When the fighting broke out, should the West have intervened militarily as one of the belligerents to put down all other belligerents? There was no Western leader who was willing to say 'I have a vital interest in the outcome of this conflict.' Nobody really thinks it has a vital interest."

One wouldn't know it from these remarks that Powell is referring to a situation in which genocide is being committed, great distrust has been engendered within the Western alliance, and Russian neo-imperialists have taken heart over the confusions of the West in the Balkans as an implicit dispensation for their own ambitions. His comment encapsulates much that has been wrong about the American policy: ignorance--or worse, distortion--of the region's history and present situation, obfuscation of our options, and an unwillingness to recognize the consequences of inaction.

On the military side, Powell, as befits his doctrine, casts the issue, according to Gates, as "being a belligerent to put down all other belligerents"--or nothing. In fact, the debate in the United States for a long time has been about a middle choice: ending the arms embargo to level the playing field. There has also been the possibility of training the Muslims to the same general end. And there have always been advocates of using airpower in restricted ways--as NATO, at long last, did in the summer of 1995 with decisive effect.

Moreover, valid political goals have been available for several years: they include making the Serbs accept narrower limits of a Greater Serbia; creating a Bosnia that has a fair chance of being viable; creating a stable balance of power in the former Yugoslavia; and, not least, stopping the killing of civilians on all sides. NATO has now demonstrated a capacity to use airpower without destroying churches, homes, and schools while destroying some of the Serbian support structure. As for the Serb juggernaut, Powell's successor as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, John Shalikashvili, finally conceded that we had to stop overestimating the Serbs. The myth of Serb strength had long been evident to those who studied it closely, and it was finally demolished by the Croats who drove them out of Western Slovenia in May and ejected them from the Krajina in August of 1995.

If Colin Powell ever gets to be commander-in-chief, he is likely to find his own doctrine a most unsatisfactory guide to the actual conduct of the nation's security affairs.

Essay Types: Book Review