The Powell doctrine

Posted: Apr 20, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--Not many secretaries of state are immortalized with an eponymous doctrine even before they become secretary of state. But when Colin Powell was General Powell he enunciated the rule that the key to success in any military conflict was the use of overwhelming force. The Powell Doctrine found its ultimate expression in the Gulf War. The idea was not to match Iraqi power but to entirely overwhelm it in planes, tanks, technology, manpower and will. That would make the war short and make victory certain. It did. Today, the Powell Doctrine seems obvious, but it was not at the time. For decades the United States had followed a policy of proportionality: restraint because of fear of escalation. It was under this theory that Major Powell watched his men bleed and die purposelessly in Vietnam. Powell understood the problem. If you respond proportionately, you allow the enemy to set the parameters and level of the fighting. You grant him the initiative. In Vietnam, proportionality brought us endless losses and painful retreat. Powell learned a lesson for his generation. There would be no more self-restraining, self-defeating proportionality. ``First we're going to cut it off,'' said Powell memorably of the Iraqi army. ``Then we're going to kill it.'' That was then. A decade later, Powell seems to have carved out an exception to his rule. In the past few weeks, the Palestinians have ominously escalated their six-month guerrilla war of riots, shootings and terrorist bombings. Their new tactic is launching mortar rounds from Palestinian territory into Israel. We're not talking about attacks on settlers, or settlements, or soldiers, or outposts, or crossroads. We're talking about attacks on towns within Israel proper, such as the peaceful desert town of Sederot, attacked this week. Israel responded to this alarming escalation not with a proportional tit for tat, which would only regularize and institutionalize--and legitimize--such cross-border Palestinian aggression. Instead Israel delivered a sharper deterrent blow: occupying a piece of Gaza from which the attacks were launched. In other words, Israel applied the Powell Doctrine. And what did it get? The sharpest rebuke from an American secretary of state in years. On Tuesday, Powell denounced the attack as ``excessive and disproportionate'' and demanded Israel's retreat. Israel docilely complied. It will regret that decision, as will the United States. Powell's policy is understandable but shortsighted. He wants to keep the violence down. And every call for Arafat to stop his war has been met with contemptuous rebuff. In his March 29 press conference, President Bush had said ``the signal I'm sending to the Palestinians is stop the violence. ... And I hope that Chairman Arafat hears it loud and clear. ... This is not the first time the message has been delivered.'' Yet since March 29, Arafat has escalated the violence with the cross-border mortar attacks. Taking the most limited view, Powell's policy is: If Arafat will not be restrained, restrain Israel and hope that this round won't blow up. But it is a losing proposition. As long as Arafat controls the tempo of violence--as he does whenever Israel is forced into a futile Vietnam-like ``proportionate'' response--he will keep the fires burning. And those fires are the real problem. They threaten to undermine the single most important American objective in the Middle East: prevention of a regional war. The spark for such a war would be the intifada that Arafat started six months ago. It is his fondest wish to bring Syria and Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, Egypt and Jordan into his war with Israel. He might yet succeed. Hezbollah, in support of the Palestinians, is opening a second front, launching its own cross-border attacks from Lebanon. On Saturday (April 14) it killed an Israeli soldier on patrol on his side of the internationally recognized border. That was meant to provoke--it did provoke--Israeli retaliation against Syrian positions in Lebanon. The constant violence Arafat began six months ago has created an intolerable and unstable situation. It can end in one of only two ways: Arafat calls it off, or it explodes in the kind of Middle East war we have not seen since 1973. Arafat's only incentive to call it off is if his war exacts from him a higher price than he can bear. Losing some of the territory he gained from Israel in the Oslo peace accords is a serious price. Israel is trying to make him pay it. It is precisely the kind of deterrent policy Powell had been preaching for years. Until Tuesday.