Biddle, O’Hanlon, And Pollack Fail The Powell Doctrine Test

Our guest bloggers are Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and Peter Juul, a Research Associate at the Center.

Continuing a series of posts critically analyzing Iraq strategies that began with the “conditional engagement” strategy by the Center for a New American Security, today we look at another analysis offered by three prominent Iraq war supporters — Stephen Biddle, Michael O’Hanlon, and Kenneth Pollack.

Returning from yet another Pentagon-sponsored trip, these three think-tankers were given yet another forum in two of the nation’s prestigious publications — Foreign Affairs and the New York Times — to spread the gospel that the United States can’t withdraw its troops from Iraq. Their argument, entitled “Standing Down as Iraq Stands Up,” sounds just like it was ripped from a Bush administration playbook circa 2005. It contains several weaknesses and mistakes worth highlighting.

First, the path forward proposed by these three military analysts fails the test of the original Powell Doctrine. Outlined in a 1992 Foreign Affairs article, Powell laid out basic questions to guide the use of American military power. While Powell recognized that his principles should not serve as a straitjacket, he put forward these questions to help focus national thinking on the use of force.


Using Powell’s questions, let’s look at Biddle, O’Hanlon, and Pollack’s arguments for sticking around for another two-plus years in Iraq at high troop levels: 1. Is the political objective we seek to achieve important, clearly defined, and understood?

The authors’ main political objective is a nebulous “sustainable stability.” What “sustainable stability” is relatively undefined; there are only brief glimmers of what it is not: a kleptocracy or a praetorian military. Presumably “sustainable stability” entails meeting the sort of political accommodation the authors lay out in the rest of the article: integration of the Sons of Iraq militias, resolving the status of displaced persons, and settling the issue of Kirkuk. Since “sustainable stability” is only vaguely defined, it is necessarily incapable of being understood. Nor do the authors explain why “sustainable stability” is important, only issuing the ominous warnings of increased violence commonplace among pro-war writers.

2. Will military force achieve the objective?

Given the vacuity of the objective O’Hanlon, Pollack, and Biddle propose, it is difficult to evaluate whether military force will achieve it. However, the authors do seem to overestimate the influence of U.S. military power in shaping the calculus of Iraqi political actors. This blind spot allows them to ignore the likelihood that the very means the United States has used to achieve recent stability run against the grain of political accommodation. For instance, Prime Minister Maliki has recently begun to crack down on the leadership of the Sunni Arab militias known as the “Sons of Iraq,” which are believed to bear the greatest responsibility for the downturn in violence. Maliki’s actions are grounded in his own power-based calculations, and, to the extent that U.S. military power enters the equation, it probably encourages him to take risks to consolidate his own power at the expense of political accommodation. Given the limited and fitful progress in Iraq’s political transition during the last year of reduced violence, it is highly questionable to assume that maintaining the status quo will lead to political accommodation or “sustainable stability.”

3. At what cost?

The authors only scratch the surface of what a continued, large scale (100,000+ troops) American military presence will cost. While they acknowledge that the strains on U.S. military readiness will force at least minor draw downs over the next year, they do not provide even rough estimates of the potential cost in dollars or human lives. During the first eight months of 2008, the United States has lost an average of 30 servicemen and women a month. At this rate, spending another two years at comparable levels of troops and violence will cost the United States a further 700-plus men and women in uniform. The financial costs will also continue to increase: America has already spent more than $650 billion (pdf) on the war in Iraq, with costs rising each year. The Congressional Budget Office estimated reducing troop levels to 30,000 over three fiscal years — well below what the authors propose — would cost a further $570 billion. Thus the course of action proposed by O’Hanlon, Pollack, and Biddle would come at substantial financial and human costs they do not deign to consider relevant. This does not even bring up the opportunity costs of not dedicating sufficient resources to other national security threats such as Afghanistan and not addressing the growing military readiness crisis.

4. Have the gains and risks been analyzed?

As with many pro-war commentaries, the risks of leaving Iraq have been played up while the risks of staying the course have been minimized. At the same time, the benefits of staying have been oversold yet again to create the impression that if the United States just sticks around longer, the situation will rectify itself. Gains and risks from staying the course in Iraq have not been adequately analyzed by the authors.


5. How might the situation we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further, and what might be the consequences?

While the authors emphasize the positive benefits of continuing America’s military presence in Iraq, they fail to examine the possible alternate consequences. Their overemphasis on U.S. military power, as noted, has already failed to take note of the unintended political consequences of methods used to achieve increased security. It is likely that continuing the U.S. military presence in Iraq will have further unintended consequences which the authors cannot foresee; unfortunately, they don’t even make an attempt to tackle that issue.