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How did we get into this war?

By John E. Carey - posted Tuesday, 19 December 2006

During the autumn of 1990, the leadership of the United States military and its civilian government, planned an assault upon Saddam Hussein and his forces. Saddam had pushed his military into Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush said, “This will not stand”.

The players were an all-star cast. Most had mutual respect if not admiration for the others. And they all got along. Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense. James Baker was Secretary of State. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf ("Stormin’ Norman") was named to head the fighting forces. And a man that had headed the CIA, served as the nation’s ambassador to China and vice president under Ronald Reagan for eight years was president: George H.W. Bush.

The assault upon Saddam’s troops in 1991 was carefully planned and regulated within the limits of the "Powell Doctrine”.


General Colin Powell articulated the Powell Doctrine, also known as the Powell Doctrine of Overwhelming Force, in the run up to the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The Powell Doctrine is more about probing questions than a recipe for success. In fact, its questions look like a way to avoid catastrophe, but do not assure success. The questions of the Powell Doctrine needed to be answered affirmatively. The questions of the Powell Doctrine are listed here and the questions are truly on the mark when contemplating a large scale military effort against another country:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analysed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

When President George W. Bush became president, he appointed Donald Rumsfeld as his Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld had been chairman of a commission advocating the acceleration of America’s missile defence effort. He also loudly advocated drastic changes for the Pentagon. “Transformation” became the lingo of revolutionary change in the Department of Defense.

In a speech at the National Defense University in January 2002, Donald Rumsfeld spoke about his vision for transformation. With war already raging in Afghanistan, the Secretary of Defense said:

This is precisely what transformation is about. Here we are in 2002, fighting the first war of the 21st century, and the horse cavalry was back - and being used in previously unimaginable ways. It shows that a revolution in military affairs is about more than building new high-tech weapons - though that is certainly part of it. It is also about new ways of thinking … and new ways of fighting … preparing for the future will require us to think differently, and develop the kinds of forces and capabilities that can adapt quickly to new challenges and unexpected circumstances.

Mr Rumsfeld continued:


We decided to move away from the two Major Theater War (MTW) construct for sizing our forces - an approach that called for maintaining two massive occupation forces, capable of marching on and occupying the capitals of two aggressors at the same time and changing their regimes. This approach served us well in the immediate post-Cold War period, but it threatened to leave us over-prepared for two specific conflicts, and under-prepared for unexpected contingencies and 21st century challenges.

But not everyone agreed with this vision of the future size and composition of the US military.

A key voice of dissent came from the Chief of Staff of the United States Army itself: General Eric Shinseki. The army read “transformation” as a prescription for a smaller, lighter force devoid of heavy artillery and stripped of other heavy weapons. Rumsfeld favored Special Operations and other expeditionary forces. The army had a stake in big numbers and big budgets.

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First published in Peace and Freedom blog on December 11, 2006.

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About the Author

John E. Carey has been a military analyst for 30 years.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by John E. Carey

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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