the complete failure of colin powell

One of the very first posts I ever wrote for orgtheory is an analysis of the Powell doctrine, which says, roughly, that you should only engage in war if you have over whelming political support and firepower. I thought the Powell doctrine was a mess from an organizational perspective:

For an organizational theorist, there’s a broader lesson about group learning – things go bad when managers prepare for situations where it is easy to prepare, rather than prepare for situations they are likely to face.

The reason that the US armed forces relied on the Powell doctrine of overwhelming numbers and superiority of force was that they allowed political concerns to drive the kinds of situations they analyze and train for. Specifically, the Powell doctrine was a response to the post-Vietnam desire to avoid ill defined, long term conflicts with guerillas…


This is like corporate managers preparing for competitors that are easy to understand and that they have experienced already, instead of preparing for competitors they are likely to encounter. The Powell doctrine essentially says: “We only become involved in cases where we can decisively win and thus our preparations will be geared towards these situations.” Instead, the doctrine should probably be “we’ll cultivate tools for the situations we’ll likely encounter and develop capacities for improvisation and learning in vague and ill defined environments.”

Eight years later, I feel justified. The US armed forces have been asked to do all kinds of crazy things that only fit Powell doctrine on occasion. For example, the 2006 Surge doesn’t quite fit, or the “muddling through” that we’re doing in Iraq right now. In other words, the Powell doctrine was a reactionary response to the mismatch between Cold War forces and the reality of Vietnam. Good doctrine doesn’t emerge from one encounter. Instead, you have to be honest and admit that Presidents will ask the armed services to do all kinds of things that aren’t well thought out.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 29, 2014 at 12:01 am

7 Responses

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  1. No doctrine can work under these circumstances. They label whatever they want to a threat to our national security. I was particularly fond of having clear objectives, but politicians don’t allow for that- I think their true objective is constant low grade conflict they can ratchet up if it is politically advantageous to them. World politicians look at Israeli politicians and they get jealous because the Israeli people put up with far more crap than they would otherwise from their own government because of Hamas.

    Powell wasn’t very smart, and his doctrine was little more than bureaucratic drivel, but nothing is going to work under these circumstances.



    August 29, 2014 at 2:03 pm

  2. Fabio, what would be your organizationally-inspired war doctrine? I ask this not to be flippant. Your posts this past week (all very interesting) help me see your perspective on what you view as important aspects of war strategy, but leave me wondering how you would approach the problem of war.



    August 29, 2014 at 4:31 pm

  3. @August – There is a bit of background to the Powell doctrine. He was a bureaucrat, but he also was a foot solider in Vietnam and his hesitation around interventionism draws from that experience. It’s amazing how Vietnam-phobia morphed into outright adventurism.

    @mike3550: Fair question. It’s not something I think about much since I’m pretty much a pacifist. But in terms of doctrine, it all starts with contingency theory because each state seems to have vastly different problems. There’s probably more, but I’d have to think about it.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 29, 2014 at 6:58 pm

  4. I totally agree the Powell Doctrine demonstrated a complete lack of imagination at the time and accords only loosely with administrative realities faced since, but blaming Vietnam misses that conflict’s other enormous contribution to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan: the turn toward counter-insurgency strategies including explicit state building, propping up civil society, improving infrastructure, etc.

    If we go back to the mid 70s, the US’s experience fighting a traditional land and air war in Vietnam produced the exact opposite results of the previous conflicts (e.g. Korea and Europe/South Pacific) where total dominance equaled clear, decisive victories. Instead in the case of Vietnam, full-scale occupation paired with a prolonged conflict produced a local population less than thrilled with constant American destruction encouraging insurgent movements within South Vietnam (and elsewhere). The result was an un-winnable war of attrition between US forces (given dwindling support back home) and newly radicalized local populations.

    As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan extended beyond Mission Accomplished, you can see a gradual and then grudging shift in US tactics toward recognizing that military forces cannot simply exert brute force and expect victory (the Powell Doctrine), but instead must work closely with local communities to win hearts and minds (in hindsight that the US largely failed at both exercising force and convincing local populations of the legitimacy of the conflict). Regardless of the results, this was a direct consequence of Vietnam (the counterinsurgency manual is very explicit toward this end) and while hardly new (colonial land wars in the 19th century pioneered many of the same tactics) the shift represents a pretty profound departure from previous US conflicts.



    August 29, 2014 at 8:16 pm

  5. @dr (who?): You make an interesting point that often gets lost – the popular, but incorrect view, of Vietnam having been a failure of nerve, or an unwillingess to apply enough resource (1 m troops at one point!). Maybe that is another deep failure of the Colin Doctrine – to completely misunderstand the nature of earlier conflict.



    August 29, 2014 at 8:43 pm

  6. Nice post. How about one on the Ukrainian “rebels” to round out the week?



    August 29, 2014 at 8:54 pm

  7. More shameless self-promotion and culture on the weekend, but we can do a Ukrainian post next week.



    August 29, 2014 at 9:08 pm

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