I continue to be convinced that, when it comes to anything even vaguely connected to war, military affairs, or coercive diplomacy, the most important fact of history is the ferocious bipartisan determination to prove Donald Rumsfeld right and Colin Powell wrong, no matter how often Colin Powell's predictions end up being the ones vindicated by the facts.
A quick refresher course:
While at the US Army War College, Colin Powell did a historical survey of every single war in history that any democracy fought on either side of, dividing them into two categories: wars that the democracy won, and wars that the democracy failed to win, either fought to a tie or lost. He wanted to know if he could come up with a clear military doctrine for democracies, and he found one. Unsurprisingly, it was little more than a slight improvement on previous military-science research, from Caspar Weinberger's work all the way back to Von Clausewitz: a list of 9 pre-requisites, every single one of which a democracy must meet before the first shot is fired, or else the democracy loses: do everything possible to avoid military force (#1 and #4); persuade your own voters and the voters in other democracies to want to fight (#7 and #8); and plan in advance the attack strategy, the objectives that will signify victory, and how you intend to get out (#s 2, 3, 5, and 6). And having done all that, weigh what you hope to achieve against the cost of the only military strategy that has ever worked -- if it's not worth the cost of raising taxes, mobilizing every healthy military-aged male, and taking them all into the target country for half a decade or longer, then accept that you can't win and abort (#8 and, informally, #9). TL;DR version: do what we did in World War II, the last war we unambiguously won.
On the other side is a bi-partisan agreement among politicians and pundits, almost none of whom ever fought for their country let alone studied military science, that while fighting a Powell Doctrine war works, it can't possibly be the only thing that works. Because if the Powell Doctrine is the only thing that works, then war has to be a once or twice in a lifetime affair, at most, because no democracy can afford to fight a Powell Doctrine war more often than that without wrecking their economy. Why is that such a bad thing? The reason, say the bi-partisan politicians and pundits, that that's unacceptable is that there are so many bad things out there in the world that diplomacy and economic sanctions alone can't stop. Surely, they argue, a nation that can put a man on the moon (or, at least, that used to be able to put a man on the moon) can find some way for the President of the world's last remaining super-power to project force, when diplomacy and sanctions fail, in order to get his way, without having to convert the whole country over to a war footing for years on end! And while there were ideas and trial balloons floated by Madeleine Albright and others during the Clinton administration, Colin Powell's opponents crystallized their planned alternative during George W. Bush's administration, and thus it's called the Rumsfeld Doctrine.
The Rumsfeld Doctrine hypothesized that given sufficiently advanced technology and best-of-the-best training for elite special operations forces, a superpower ought to be able to find, or else if need be recruit, disaffected elements in the targeted country, and incite them to civil war. As they will be a tiny rebel force, we can count on their government slaughtering them, and then, under the UN's "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, we can use the fact that they're losing their civil war as diplomatic cover for providing them with satellite and computerized intel and precision drone and stealth-fighter air cover, and covert special operations force ground support. With those advantages over the national army, Rumsfeld and his fans argued, any group of rebels, no matter how small and how unpopular in their home country, ought to be able to seize and hold the capital indefinitely. With enough such special operations forces units and enough drone air strikes, the Rumsfeld Doctrine argues, we ought to be able to credibly threaten any country that doesn't bow to our diplomatic and economic sanctions, and, if that threat isn't enough, replace them with a grateful, and thus friendly, government. As cheap as those things are, we ought to be able to do those things as often as the President wants.
The Rumsfeld Doctrine was a disaster in Iraq. It was a disaster in Afghanistan. Oh, we can pretend that both cases were victories, because the Rumsfeld Doctrine is right in one narrow regard: a tiny America-backed rebel force can topple any third-world government. What they can't do, after that, is govern the country, not without popular support at home, near-universal diplomatic support, and millions of pairs of American boots on the ground to protect that government, and to protect and provision the country, during reconstruction. The net result, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, ended up being that even worse, even more anti-American, governments end up being the ones that seize power at the end of the civil war after the old regime falls. It turned out, in Afghanistan and Iraq, that "Gideon's band" can topple a government, but they can't build a new one.
I worry that the Obama administration considers Libya to be a Rumsfeld Doctrine success. In Libya, we did do it a little differently. We made one concession to Powell and put more effort into diplomacy and coalition building before we went in. (Neo-cons will never forgive Obama for that. Having to have allies who agree to take the lead? Strikes them as an unacceptable limitation on Presidential power, it limits the US to only using military force when somebody else says we can. And a tool that can only be used when somebody else lets us use it is barely better than not having the tool at all.) Our covert troops on the ground were even more covert. Obama was very, very proud when Tripoli fell and made only unconvincing tut-tut sounds when US-backed rebels killed Qaddafi in cold blood. But has Libya been a success for the Rumsfeld doctrine? The news out of Libya in the last couple of months hasn't been any better than the news out of Iraq in 2004: sectarian and tribal militias are slaughtering each other, and elements of the old regime are massing across the border biding their time.
And, although no US newspaper or TV station will tell you this, that is why Russia and China used their UN Security Council veto power to turn down the US-backed motion that we have a "Responsibility to Protect" anti-Alawite rebels in Homs and elsewhere in Syria. I don't think they're just being cynical when they observe that, while the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine was promulgated after a genocidal civil war in sub-Saharan Africa, somehow it only gets invoked against oil-exporting states that the US has diplomatic problems with, and the facts are clearly on their side when they argue that the death toll among civilians in Libya, after our "Responsibility to Protect" intervention on behalf of the people of Benghazi, Libya is rapidly closing in on as many people as if we'd just let Qaddafi win; it's at best a net-break-even on human life and suffering, and will certainly be a net loss by the time the resulting Libyan Civil War grinds to a halt, who knows how many years from now.
In the days immediately following 9/11, neo-cons crowed that this meant it was only a matter of time before they got the wars they wanted. Afghanistan, which actually attacked us, was never more than an unwanted distraction from the wars they really wanted: Rumsfeld-Doctrine colonial adventures to replace anti-US governments in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. And, as the US has openly said that they intend to find some way around that Security Council veto, it looks like they were right; it's only a matter of time before our Nobel Peace Prize winning President finishes George W. Bush's dream of launching at least one more colonial adventure in the Middle East.
(Oh, and have you heard? According to the New York Times, Iran is pursuing Weapons of Mass Destruction! And is in contact with Al Qaeda! If we don't act now, the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud!)
The "Responsibility to Protect" UN doctrine was, as I said, first promulgated by then-outgoing President Bill Clinton. He counts his failure to send US troops to stop the genocidal Tutsi/Hutu civil wars in Rwanda and Burundi as the biggest mistake of his two terms in office. He, and others, argued that no matter what the UN Treaty originally said about aggressive war, there must be something the UN can do, there must be something the world's superpowers can do, there must be something the US can do, to stop genocidal slaughter of civilians - that it's happening in a sovereign country that isn't at war with anybody else can't possibly mean that the rest of us have to stand by and do nothing, he argued, and many others have agreed. I stand by what I said at the time: if you do not have the ability, you do not have the responsibility. You cannot be held morally accountable for something you were incapable of doing. And Colin Powell keeps being proven right: no, we cannot overthrow every evil government in the world, because the only kind of war that's actually capable of doing it is one that we can only afford to use the one or two times per generation that we come under attack ourselves. Even if post-Rumsfeld generals find a way to topple governments that slaughter their own people, we cannot afford the manpower and the money it would cost to reconstruct those countries afterwards, and without that reconstruction, the slaughter only ends up worse, not better.