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Mark Shields: The President Bush Who Got It Right About War

Long before he, as President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, gave the world a detailed description of Saddam Hussein’s weapons program, which did not exist, and made a persuasive case for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Colin Powell was a young Army officer who had served two combat tours in Vietnam.

There he had held in his arms a young American soldier who had been blown apart by a land mine while fighting a war that powerful men in Washington had declared necessary to stop international communism. He knew firsthand the pain of writing a personal note to parents of a soldier under his command who would be coming home in a casket.

Powell pledged, he would later write, that if the time ever came when he was making policy, he “would not quietly acquiesce in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support.”

In 1991, while serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, Gen. Colin Powell kept his word.

In what would come to be known as the Powell Doctrine, he argued that the United States should only send its men and women into combat as a last resort and only after all other nonviolent policy options have been tried.

Just as important were these preconditions for war: when the vital national security interest of the nation is threatened by the intended opponent, when the U.S. forces are overwhelming and disproportionate to the forces of the opponent, when the U.S. action and mission are fully understood and strongly supported by the American people, when the U.S. mission has authentic international backing, and when there is a coherent exit strategy for the U.S. troops.

Remember the Persian Gulf War? Saddam had invaded Iraq’s oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait. Bush had a clear and limited objective, to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. With both the House of Representatives and the Senate controlled by the opposition party, Bush 41 still won Congress’ support for U.S. action.

In addition, Bush got the U.N. Security Council to endorse nations’ using all means necessary if Iraq refused to withdraw. Bush and his secretary of state, Jim Baker, forged a military coalition of 34 nations and then persuaded Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Germany and Japan — collectively — to pay more than 86 percent of the total cost of $61 billion.

The United States deployed approximately 540,000 troops to the war and suffered 294 fatalities. The war lasted 42 days.

Let it be noted that while faithfully following the Powell Doctrine, Bush 41, in the Gulf War, won the only clear-cut American military victory in the 70 years since the end of World War II.

Powell later would publicly confess that the misleading case he made so effectively for the tragic 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq will always be a blot on his record. It was not the Powell Doctrine that failed in the Iraq War. (It was, stupidly, ignored.) It was the failure of powerful men named Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and, yes, Colin Powell.

Now we are, nearly 25 years after that winning Gulf War, in another presidential campaign full of our demands for leaders with “new ideas.” President George H.W. Bush had a pretty great old idea in 1990 that we called the Powell Doctrine, which made a helluva lot more sense than anything I’ve heard since.

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, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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