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Mark Shields: Is There an ‘Obama-Clinton Doctrine’?

What is the U.S. mission in Afghanistan that the American people can support? When will we know that mission has been accomplished?

As a young Army lieutenant, and later a major, he served two tours of combat duty in Vietnam, where he would know the personal pain of holding in his arms a young, dying soldier, and where he pledged, if he ever were to make policy, that he “would not quietly acquiesce in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand.”

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Thus was Colin Powell, later chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, moved to author the Powell Doctrine, which makes even more sense today than it did a generation ago. The Powell Doctrine holds that the United States shall commit its men and women into combat only as a last resort and only after all economic, diplomatic and nonmilitary alternatives have been tried, and then only when the following four conditions have been met:

» The vital national security of the United States is threatened by the enemy to be attacked.

» The United States is prepared to employ overwhelming force disproportionate to the force available to the enemy.

» The mission and its objectives are fully understood and supported by the American people, and that mission has broad international support.

» There is a clear and plausible exit strategy for the Americans committed to accomplish that mission.

Tragically, in persuasively making the public case as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, Powell disregarded and disobeyed his own doctrine. There was no grave threat to U.S. national security. The United States refused to use overwhelming force. There was no informed public commitment to, or understanding of, the mission, precious little international support and, clearly, no exit strategy.

Now the nation approaches the eighth anniversary of military combat in Afghanistan, where more Americans died in August than in any of that war’s previous 93 months. The country’s leadership continues to ask everything of the brave Americans who serve and who suffer — and of their loved ones who both miss them and mourn them — while asking no inconvenience whatsoever of the other 99 percent of us. Let us understand: This nation does not commit “force” to war. No, we send men and women, all with families and hopes and plans for their futures.

Iraq and Afghanistan have been, and remain for our proudly classless nation, “a class war.” The once-honored national value of shared sacrifice has been abandoned in the 21st century. The children of the country’s economic and social elites — both the politically conservative and politically liberal — have been overwhelmingly AWOL from harm’s way.

Conservative author Michael Barone has written that “war demands equality of sacrifice.” There is truly no moral authority like that of sacrifice. But not for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation’s first major conflicts since the Mexican-American war in 1846 to be waged without a military draft and without civilian tax increases.

In 2009, has the Powell Doctrine been repealed? Is there in its place an “Obama-Clinton Doctrine” that defines when, under what conditions and why the United States goes to war? If there is, I confess I have missed it.

What is the U.S. mission in Afghanistan that the American people can support and for which we are asking some American children to grow up without a father? When will we know that mission has been accomplished? What sacrifices will each of us be asked to make? This needed national debate is long overdue. For the record, you can put me down for fully restoring the Powell Doctrine.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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