The Vietnam doctrine and the Powell doctrine

by Pat McFadden 

As the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries struggle to put together a strategy to combat Isis the question arises, has the West lost the will to implement the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force and is it by default reverting to the Vietnam doctrine of escalation in steps, with the danger that the steps are not big enough or decisive enough?

The question matters because the decision to engage in military action In Iraq and (for the US) Syria has been characterised as much by what is ruled out as what is ruled in.  Haunted by recent long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Britain and the US have emphasised at all times their unwillingness to put “boots on the ground”.

What does ruling out boots on the ground mean in practical terms?  There should be little doubt that the leaders of both the US and UK would sanction special forces operations to hunt down the Isis killing squad who are beheading innocent hostages if they knew where they were.  Those special forces would be wearing boots.  And, for a time at least, they would be on the ground.

By talking about no boots on the ground our leaders don’t actually therefore mean no boots on the ground.  They mean something that doesn’t look like an army as in the long and visible military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.

But when we consider special forces, advisers and other means of co-ordinating military action from the air, and the imperative of stopping Isis establishing a caliphate, it is possible that these lines could become more blurred.

Philip Bobbit, the highly respected US author and academic wrote recently that ruling out boots on the ground was a necessary price for President Obama to pay to get approval for the action from the air that he sanctioned.

Perhaps, but two questions arise.  First, will the line between what is actually happening and what has become ruled out become more blurred as the action escalates?  And if it does, what questions will that raise about honesty and treating the public as adults?  Secondly, if the goal is to do serious damage to Isis and impair its ability to act, does the politics of ruling out boots on the ground conflict with the action necessary to make this goal more achievable?

In other words, is war weariness pushing the West back into an unwitting adoption of the Vietnam doctrine of escalation by degree rather than Powell doctrine of using overwhelming force which replaced it?

For our leaders haunted by the recent experience of Iraq and Afghanistan it is worth remembering, the past did not begin in 2003.

Pat McFadden is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East

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4 Responses to “The Vietnam doctrine and the Powell doctrine”

  1. Madasafish says:

    For our leaders haunted by the recent experience of Iraq and Afghanistan it is worth remembering, the past did not begin in 2003.

    The world changes but some things never change.

    Who won the Anglo-Afghan Wars, three conflicts (1839–42; 1878–80; 1919)?

    Who won the Russian Afghan wars 1979-1989?

    Who won the 2001 to current invasion of Afghanistan?

    Who won the 2003 invasion of Iraq?

    And the writer insists we invade someone else?

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” Santayana.

    Bit rich to quote history at us and then proceed to ignore it

    PS… Who won the Vietnam war.?

    I rest my case.

  2. swatantra says:

    Pat is wrong. Vietnam was not just escalation by degrees. The USA poured money men and bio weapons into trying to win that War, and they failed. After the fall of Saigon, we here little of Vietnam these days under a united Regime. The Communists were also instrumental in bringing down the vile Pol Pots Khmer Rouge, todays ISIS.
    Its not a White Man’s War. Niether is the Middle East. Let the Muslims and Turks and Kurds fight it out. And the Syrians and Iranians and the Palestinians.
    We have enough problems sorting out Europe and stopping it falling into the hands of the neofacists and islamofacists.

  3. Tafia says:

    rather than Powell doctrine of using overwhelming force which replaced it?

    And which failed spectacularly. And the reason why? Because like morons we tried to impose western style democracies on non-western cultures and got what we thoroughly deserved as a result.

    In 2 years time at most the Taleban will be running Afghanistan again. Iraq will still be a shithole with a propped up pretend government that only rules the Green Zone. Syria will still be in the depths of a civil war and Libya’s western backed government will still be trapped on their rusty ferry 15 miles from the Egyptian border. Egypt will still be highly repressive and a hot-bed of terrorist recruitment and seething resentment against the west by the ordinary people.

    Meantime we will continue to rim the Saudi King’s sphincter despite the fact that they routinely behead and crucify people (79 in 2013) for such heinous crimes as carjacking, adultery and homosexuality, and pouring boiling water over your filipina maids for being lazy is perfectly acceptable.

    We should stay out of the middle east – we offer nothing and try to impose our way of life on an incompatable culture and lifestyle causing even more mayhem as a result. Even now we are bombing ISIS and we don’t really know why or or even what we are trying to achieve.

  4. bob says:


    Totally correct.


    Your rifle and kit is waiting for you at the QMs stores, until you are prepared to lead in the battle, and don’t forget the ‘Middle East Peace Envoy’ to join the queue, don’t ask other peoples sons to go to war in a situation that your government of which you were a member created.

    You and your ilk are happy to sacrifice other peoples children but the Red Princes are noticeable by their absence (sons of Blair Straw Prescott and Kinnock) all doing nicely thank you.

    You and and your leader created this situation along with GWB, and far from being lauded you should all be at the Hague to answer for what you have done. Many hardcore Labour supporters in the NW are turning to UKIP despite what you and the metropolitan elite.

    Many of the people want draconian immigration rules and reduce immigration to a trickle from the flood of Peter Mandleson’s ‘rubbing the rights nose in diversity’ levels. Look at Rorherham Rochdale Oxford West Midlands and now tonight Middlesbrough and Leeds for heritage group sexual grooming and rape or children

    This is the Middle East’s problem and if they kill each other that is their problem not ours, build the nations ‘walls’ and close the Channel tunnel to control our borders.

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