08/19/2012 12:37 pm ET

Revisiting the Clinton Doctrine

There was a pivotal moment during the 2008 presidential election campaign when an aggressive journalist interviewing Sarah Palin and apparently looking for a "'gotcha' moment asked the vice-presidential candidate what she thought of the "Bush Doctrine". When the question prompted only a blank expression, questions were later raised about the candidate's competence and knowledge of world affairs.

While it turned out that few voters had ever heard of such a doctrine (it turned out that some journalists had characterized it as the doctrine of "preemption"), the question did highlight the fact that historians often try to tie a president's legacy to some doctrine or another -- think the "Monroe Doctrine" -- if for no other reason that such an eponym makes a good sub-heading for a history book chapter. There also seems to be an unwritten premise that one has to be an actual president to in order to have a doctrine, thus precluding mere cabinet underlings or officials from having their own doctrine. Thus, any reference to a "Clinton Doctrine' would have to refer to doctrine tied to a policy of former President Clinton and not to current Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

So to what policy of the former president might future historians attach the eponym of the "Clinton Doctrine?"

However one might feel about the Clinton presidency as a whole, one salient fact highlights his two four year terms in office -- namely that he never sent massive contingents of ground troops to deal with a perceived foreign threat. Rather he simply employed air power to reduce the infrastructure of the protagonist country to rubble until its leaders finally cried 'uncle' and said "just stop, and we'll do what you want us to do." Certainly that was Clinton's military strategy in the former Yugoslavia, and it seems to have achieved its desire effect with far less cost in money and blood than the infusion of a massive army of ground troops which would have cost countless American lives and up to a million dollars per soldier per year (the approximate current cost of maintaining troops in Afghanistan).

A related military strategy of employing only overwhelming conventional military force in order to confine a military conflict to a matter of days rather than years or decades, and eschewing a decades long guerilla war -- advocated by General Colin Powell -- also worked successfully in the First Gulf War, though General Powell, not being a president, wasn't entitled to have a doctrine named after him.

Though many army generals are fond of claiming that air power alone can never win a war, military historians acknowledge that the war in the Pacific in the middle stages of World War II was won by overwhelming conventional military power, and in the latter stages by air power alone, thus avoiding a bloody invasion and protracted guerilla war in Japan that could have consumed up to a million American lives in another year or more of war.

While the Powell strategy was employed successfully in the first weeks of the Second Gulf War and in Afghanistan, it was soon discarded as both wars were allowed to degenerate into decade long, guerilla wars costing hundreds of billions of dollars, virtually bankrupting the U.S. treasury and throwing the U.S. into recession.

In light of the lessons learned in these two wars, if not from the lessons of Vietnam, it may be time to revisit the Clinton Doctrine (and the Truman/Powell military strategy) in fighting future conflicts. As King Phyrus remarked after winning a great battle against the Romans in the third century B.C., "another such victory and we will lose the war." If we continue to fight the war against terror without first conducting a sound cost/benefit analysis, we may share that ancient King's ultimate fate.