- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

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Which way is American foreign policy going? If you consider that Colin Powell is leaving and George W. Bush is not, it may seem obvious: Powell’s reluctance to use American military power is dead, vanquished by Bush’s belief in aggressive unilateralism. But don’t be too sure.

When it comes to foreign policy, the Bush administration has long brought to mind the poet Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” — “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Back when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell made the case against the profligate use of American military power. But somehow he ended up serving as secretary of state for a president who practices aggressive unilateralism.

The two approaches are now known as the Powell Doctrine and the Bush Doctrine. Powell, who was deeply affected by the futility of Vietnam, preached that the United States should go to war only under certain stringent conditions — when an important national interest was at risk, the public broadly supported military action, we could apply overwhelming force, and the exits were clearly marked.

That approach fit the first Iraq war, under the first President Bush. But it found little favor with President Clinton, whose interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti met none of Powell’s conditions.

When he ran for president in 2000, George W. Bush promised to be far more hardheaded and judicious about putting Americans in harm’s way. Like Powell, Bush was skeptical of humanitarian missions, and he faulted Clinton for overstretching the American military.

As Condoleezza Rice said of Bush, “He recognizes that the magnificent men and women of America’s armed forces are not a global police force. They are not the world’s 911.” In one caustic moment, she said, “We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.” Rice, who Powell once said was “like a daughter” to him, perfectly mirrored his thinking.

But Bush’s chief opinion on foreign policy was that he didn’t care much about it. He had rarely been abroad and was ill at ease speaking about international relations. Shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks, he announced, “The United States has no more important relationship in the world than our relationship with Mexico.”

But after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush decided that most of what he had preached was wrong. And Rice apparently agreed. Instead of raising the bar for the use of military power, they drastically lowered it. No longer was it enough to simply contain and deter tyrants like Saddam Hussein — a policy Bush described, absurdly, as “hoping for the best.”

Instead, he offered what became known as the Bush Doctrine. Confronted by even the possibility of future danger, his 2002 National Security Strategy proclaimed, “the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively.”

Or even if not necessary. The main rationale for the Iraq war was that Saddam Hussein possessed huge stocks of biological and chemical weapons and was alarmingly close to getting nuclear ones as well. But even after the administration’s own expert found that Hussein had long ago abandoned his efforts to build weapons of mass destruction, the president insisted the war was fully justified.

Fully justified, however, is not the same as sensible or wise. The question about Iraq was never whether it was desirable to get rid of a dictator — only whether getting rid of him was worth the cost. The administration expected a brief conflict and an early departure. Yet here we are 20 months later, mired in a debilitating war whose end is nowhere in sight.

Colin Powell foresaw the perils. After the first Gulf War, he scoffed at critics who said we should have removed Hussein once and for all. “Would serving that purpose have been worth the many more casualties that would have occurred?” wrote Powell. “Would it have been worth the inevitable followup: major occupation forces in Iraq for years to come and a very expensive and complex American proconsulship in Baghdad?” The outcome of this war only confirms the wisdom of the Powell Doctrine.

What about the Bush Doctrine? Like a nuclear missile, we’ve learned, it’s useful only if it’s never used. Having applied it in Iraq, we find ourselves so overwhelmed by the results that we can hardly think of acting on it elsewhere. Dangers are gathering in Iran and North Korea, but our military options for addressing them are virtually nonexistent. We simply don’t have the resources to take on those enemies anytime soon.

So it may ultimately be irrelevant that the Powell Doctrine lost its major patron in the Bush administration. In the long run, it has a far more powerful ally: reality.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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