Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mark Shields: Mr. President, call Colin Powell

Just 16 days before the 2008 election, Colin Powell, a Republican who had been appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President George H.W. Bush and secretary of state by President George W. Bush, broke ranks to endorse Democrat Barack Obama for president. Today, more than 29 months later, it is past time for President Obama to get a crash course on the Powell Doctrine from Colin himself.

After two tours of duty in Vietnam and long before his own unsuccessful term as secretary of state, Gen. Powell made the strong case that the United States should commit men and women to combat only as a last resort and after other policy options had been exhausted -- and only 1) when the vital national security interest of the nation is at stake, 2) when the U.S. force employed is overwhelming and disproportionate to the force of the enemy, 3) when the mission and the military action are both understood and supported by the American people and the mission has real international support, and 4) there is a clear and plausible exit strategy for the U.S. troops sent into harm’s way.

True, as secretary of state in 2003, in what he would later concede would always be a permanent “blot” on his record, he did in his speech at the United Nations persuade a skeptical American public that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did threaten this nation’s vital national security interests. He was wrong that day, but it was Colin Powell who failed in 2003, not the Powell Doctrine.

Obviously missing from the Libyan policy of the Obama administration was any real understanding by American voters about what the specific mission was and, absent such understanding, there could be no informed domestic support for the U.S. policy there. Without a clearly defined mission statement, it is impossible to determine whether the U.S. or allied forces deployed are proportionate, let alone disproportionate. If there ever was a clear exit strategy going into Libya, I missed it.

Libya thus joined Iraq and Afghanistan as U.S. wars that ask no civilian sacrifice, no home-front shortages, not even the petty inconvenience of forgoing more tax cuts. Just one more indefensible violation of the honored American value that “war demands equality of sacrifice.”

One public voice has been admirably consistent. Long before he was elected to the Senate from Virginia as a Democrat, back when he was still a registered Republican, Jim Webb -- who as a Marine platoon leader and company commander in Vietnam earned the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple hearts -- condemned “the complete separation of people in power in Washington from the people at peril in the Persian Gulf.”

Webb’s words then are even more true today: “If the U.S. military was truly representative of the country, you would have people going through the roof right now.”

This is not the way it was supposed to be. The strength of a nation, we have learned from painful experience, is measured by that nation’s will and resolve to stand together in individual and universal sacrifice for the common good. Last fall, the country endured a fierce national election when the U.S. war in Afghanistan went entirely undebated. Why, when that war is unpopular by all public polls, are there no campus protests or noisy peace demonstrations? The answer can be given in two words: No Draft.

President Obama, please call Colin Powell immediately. Listen closely. Then heed his Powell Doctrine. At the same time, call Jim Webb and ask him, too, for his candid advice -- which is the only kind he knows how to give.