The Mullen Doctrine

April 1, 2010

A key issue for the US concerns when, how, and for what America will fight. In October 1984, Secretary of State George P. Shultz famously warned about becoming “the Hamlet of nations,” frozen by uncertainty. He wanted President Reagan to pull the trigger more often, even in murky situations.

This greatly bothered Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who proposed six tests for use of force. Is a vital national interest at stake? Will we commit resources to win? Will we sustain that commitment? Is the objective clear? Can we expect public support? Is force a last resort? The “Weinberger Doctrine” set a high bar for a few years.

Ultimately, though, the Shultz view has prevailed. In the post-Weinberger world, Washington has progressively loosened up on its use of force, at times dispatching US units with undefined or vague objectives. The threshold for commitment of forces is lower than it used to be. Now it looks like it will go lower still.

A new jolt of downward pressure was recently delivered by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In March 3 remarks at Kansas State University, the top US officer sketched out a “Mullen Doctrine” of sorts, with three key “principles”:

• “We must not look upon the use of military forces only as a last resort, but as potentially the best, first option.”

• “We must not try to use force only in an overwhelming capacity, but … in a precise and principled manner.”

• “We must not shrink from the tug of war … that inevitably plays out between policy-making and strategy execution.”

Where Weinberger counseled caution, Mullen offers enthusiasm; where Weinberger liked decisive power, Mullen demands restraint; where Weinberger wanted military execution of a clear plan, the admiral welcomes a “struggle” between officers and civilians.

Mullen’s concept is not necessarily wrong. The details matter, but that is getting ahead of the story.

Weinberger’s doctrine, unveiled Nov. 28, 1984, was an echo of Vietnam, where US forces got bogged down in a war the nation had no heart to win. On top of that came the 1980 Desert One fiasco and 1983 truck-bomb deaths of 241 US troops in Beirut. Weinberger and senior officers were determined to prevent recurrences.

The 1990-91 Gulf War met all of Weinberger’s six tests, and proved to be a shining example of how to commit US forces. The then-JCS Chairman, Gen. Colin Powell, was a former Weinberger aide and advocate of his ex-boss’s views. His own set of tests, “the Powell Doctrine,” made “decisive” force a priority.

Toward the end of his 1989-93 tenure, Powell’s view drew fire. Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of House Armed Services Committee, claimed in 1992 that Powell and other military leaders constituted an “All-or-Nothing” school of thought. Building up in reaction, he added, was a “Limited Objectives” school, which saw merit in using force more often for lesser interests.

This was inevitable. In the Weinberger-Powell era, the goal was to deter nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Only a vital interest was worth the risk of escalation. When the USSR collapsed, the risk faded. Also, advanced technology made it easier to use force—especially airpower—with precision and limited risk.

President Clinton came to office in 1993 prepared to make freer use of force. Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s ambassador to the UN, asked Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

In line with this view, George H. W. Bush’s late 1992 humanitarian mission to Somalia was transformed in 1993 into Bill Clinton’s armed peacekeeping in that chaotic nation. In the end, 18 Army Rangers died pursuing a Somali warlord in Mogadishu, and the US withdrew.

Still, the threshold of combat continued downward through the 1990s, with the US engaging in Haiti and Bosnia and carrying out a spate of symbolic air strikes in Iraq. Advancement of local democracy was cited as a justification for force employment.

President George W. Bush arrived in Washington wishing to halt what he deemed an overuse of US power, only to end up, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, mounting the largest use of force since Vietnam. In Iraq, Bush’s resort to “preventive war” drove the threshold of combat to new depths.

By one count, the US has committed forces more than 75 times since 1980. Thus, Admiral Mullen’s expansive view on the use of military power seems less like a departure from the norm than it does a recognition of the facts of life.

For all that, the Mullen Doctrine unavoidably raises concerns about employment of military power.

One is the danger of “gradualism,” Vietnam-style. As Mullen correctly observes, “We can, merely by our presence, help alter certain behavior.” It is also true that each actual commitment of Americans to combat carries risk, with its own dynamic. Limited operations can generate pressure to expand in intended ways.

Another concern stems from restrictive rules of engagement—a precondition for “precise” use of force. Mullen concedes US troops in Afghanistan “have concerns” about such restraints on their actions, and “believe they have become more vulnerable.”

In addition, Mullen’s third point wakens echoes of Vietnam, a conflict characterized by political meddling in what should have been military decisions. “Some in the military no doubt would prefer political leadership that lays out a specific strategy and then gets out of the way,” he said, adding his view that this is not possible in today’s wars.

The Mullen Doctrine does little to assist policy-makers struggling with new sets of military threats such as cyberwar and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. In such situations, should use of force be a last resort, or an early option? Should any future action be restrained, given the price of failure? Should political influences intrude

In his 1993 memoir Turmoil and Triumph, Shultz had harsh words for Weinberger’s doctrine. “This was the Vietnam Syndrome in spades, carried to an absurd level, and a complete abdication of the duties of leadership.”

Such restraints, whatever their original value, exist no more. We will at length be able to learn the true price of their disappearance.