Since 1990, US military policy has been governed by one overarching premise that US and international security is primarily threatened by the “rogue states” of the Third World. These states — assumed to include Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria — are said to threaten US interests because of their large and relatively modern militaries, their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and their hostile stance toward the United States and its allies. To counter this threat, current American strategy requires the maintenance of sufficient military strength to conduct (and prevail in) two Desert Storm-like operations simultaneously.

This strategy, the “rogue doctrine,” has proved very effective for the US military establishment, providing a successful rationale for annual budget requests and a coherent basis for military planning. [1] Congress has largely embraced the rogue state model, awarding sufficient funds to implement the broad outlines of the two-war strategy. The president and high-ranking officials regularly speak of the rogue state threat in public pronouncements, and it is even more widely used in think tank publications and the mass media.

The rogue doctrine was born in the final weeks of 1989, when Gen. Colin Powell — then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) — began searching for a new, post-Soviet military strategy. Recognizing the implausibility of a US-Soviet clash in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, Powell sought to construct a new threat scenario to justify the preservation of America’s superpower capabilities in a world devoid of a prime adversary. Working closely with Gen. Lee Butler, then director of the Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate (J-5) of the Joint Staff, Powell devised a strategy in which multiple regional threats would govern US military planning. [2]

Fearful that precipitous congressional action would destroy any sense of coherence in US military planning, Powell sought to establish a new strategic paradigm enabling the Pentagon to confine the inevitable cutbacks to bearable limits while imbuing the military with a new sense of purpose. As noted in the official JCS history of the Base Force concept (as the new strategy was called), Powell “believed that if the military did not plan these reductions in a rational manner, then Congress and the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] would impose them.” [3]

On November 15, 1989, just one week after the Berlin Wall’s collapse, Powell presented the rough outlines of his new strategic vision to President Bush. With a diminished Soviet threat and sharply reduced resources, he argued, the focus of strategic planning should shift from global war with the Soviet Union to regional encounters with rising Third World powers. To carry out this strategy, Powell proposed a “Base Force” of 1.6 million active-duty personnel (down by about one fourth from the 1989 level of 2.1 million), with a conventional force of 12 active Army divisions, 16 active Air Force tactical fighter wings and 450 warships (including 12 carriers).

In the weeks that followed, senior Pentagon officials began speaking of the threat posed by well-armed, antagonistic Third World powers (this was before the term “rogue state” had come into widespread usage). In April 1990, for instance, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl E. Vuono discussed this threat in an article in Sea Power magazine: “The proliferation of military power in…the Third World presents a troubling picture. Many Third World nations now possess mounting arsenals of tanks, heavy artillery, ballistic missiles and chemical weapons…. The United States cannot ignore the expanding military power of these countries, and the Army must retain the capability to defeat potential threats wherever they occur. This could mean confronting a well-equipped army in the Third World.” [4] Aside from its clairvoyance — at this time the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the onset of Operation Desert Shield were but five months away — Vuono’s article is striking for its vivid portrayal of the new threat paradigm.

Gen. Powell and his aides continued to marshal support for the new strategy during the spring of 1990, and on June 26 presented the Base Force concept to President Bush and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. After much discussion, Bush gave his formal approval to Powell’s plan and instructed his staff to prepare a speech outlining its general parameters. Bush delivered this speech during a previously scheduled appearance at the Aspen Institute in Colorado on August 2. [5] “In a world less driven by an immediate threat to Europe and the danger of global war,” he stated, “the size of our forces will increasingly be shaped by the needs of regional conflict and peacetime [military] presence [abroad].” In line with this new posture, “America must possess forces able to respond to threats in whatever corner of the globe they may occur.” [6]

Bush’s speech at the Aspen Institute received special attention because a few hours earlier, late on August 1, Iraqi troops had begun invading Kuwait. Bush made reference to the Iraqi attack in his comments, leading many commentators to view the speech as a response to the Iraqi action. Certainly the president’s strong attacks on Saddam Hussein over the next few days, along with the announcement of Operation Desert Shield on August 7, led most people to conflate these two events. From a historical perspective, however, it is essential to remember that the “regional strategy” announced by Bush on August 2 was a response not to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait but to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the growing enfeeblement of the Soviet Union. [7]

Possessing overwhelming firepower and absolute command of the skies over the Gulf; the United States defeated Iraq in a matter of weeks. Once the fighting was over, Cheney and Powell made it clear that regional engagements of this sort would pose the principal challenge to US security in the post-Cold War era. On March 19, 1991, Cheney told Congress that “the Gulf war presaged…the type of conflict we are most likely to confront again in this new era.” [8] This outlook has dominated US military thinking ever since.

The “Golden Age” of the Rogue Doctrine

The period from February 1991 to February 1998 constituted the “golden age” of the rogue doctrine. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Congress abandoned all talk of the “peace dividend” and few outside Congress offered significant resistance to the new posture. As details of the elaborate Iraqi preparations for nuclear, chemical and biological warfare gradually became known in the post-war period, the concept of the “rogue state” took hold in the think tanks and the media, driving out all competing strategic paradigms.

The potency of the rogue doctrine became clearer in 1993, when a new administration took office in Washington. During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton (then governor of Arkansas) had promised to conduct a full-scale review of US military policy in light of the Cold War’s end. Once in office, Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, ordered a “bottom-up review” (BUR) of US strategy. Although the review generated considerable debate and speculation, the final product closely resembled the Base Force concept devised by Gen. Powell three years earlier. [9]

In presenting the BUR to the public, Aspin and Powell articulated the rogue doctrine in its fully-developed form. The new strategy, Aspin declared, was driven by a need to contain “rogue leaders set on regional domination through military aggression while simultaneously pursuing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities.” In meeting these threats, he noted, the Pentagon’s principal objective would be “to project power into regions important to our interests and to defeat potentially hostile regional powers, such as North Korea and Iraq.” [10]

By 1994, the rogue state threat and opposition to proliferation had become the defining theme of Clinton’s policy. In a seminal article in Foreign Affairs, former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake declared that “our policy must face the reality of recalcitrant and outlaw states that not only choose to remain outside the family of nations but also assault its basic values.” These states can be characterized, he explained, by “a chronic inability to engage constructively with the outside world,” and an unceasing quest for weapons of mass destruction. Just as the United States once led the drive to contain Soviet expansionism, Lake argued, it now had a responsibility to “neutralize” and “contain” this new group of enemies. [11]

In elaborating this outlook, administration officials consistently equated the proliferation threat with rogue state status. In 1995, for instance, Secretary of Defense William Perry declared that the possibility of a “rogue nation” acquiring a nuclear bomb “is one of the most serious threats facing the world.” [12] In another speech, Perry affirmed that the illicit demand for nuclear and chemical technology “comes primarily from a group of nations some call the Rogues Gallery…. They want these weapons to bully their neighbors, to blackmail world powers and to offset US military superiority.” [13]

Confrontation with the rogue states took many forms. Pressure on Iraq was manifested through non-stop air patrols and periodic missile attacks. In 1992, Libya was subjected to UN-imposed economic sanctions for Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s refusal to extradite two government officials accused of complicity in the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing. North Korea was threatened with similar sanctions in 1994 when it refused access to its nuclear sites by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency in accordance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US subjected Iran to a unilateral ban on trade and investment in 1995 in response to its alleged nuclear pursuits.

Although some military analysts had begun to question the continuing centrality of the rogue state threat by the mid-1990s, the paradigm continued to dominate US military thinking in 1997 when the Department of Defense conducted another strategic reassessment, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Supposedly intended as a clean break from the thinking that guided the BUR, the 1997 QDR endorsed the goal of maintaining preparedness to wage two major regional conflicts (MRCs) simultaneously. [14]

Dilution of the Rogue Doctrine

Although the rogue doctrine continues to hold center stage in US strategic thinking, it has faced a number of challenges. At present, no one challenge is strong enough to overturn the doctrine, but their cumulative effects are gaining force. Six merit special attention:

Lack of support from the allies. Although President Bush assembled an extraordinary coalition of states to oppose Saddam Hussein in 1990-1991, neither Bush nor his successor has successfully preserved that alliance or extended it to confront other rogues. No American ally has yet accepted the validity of the “rogue state” concept, and few have supported US efforts to isolate and punish particular rogue regimes. Iraq and Libya remain under UN economic sanctions, but many countries continue to buy oil from Libya while a growing number of states would like to lift the sanctions on Iraq. North Korea continues to be isolated from the international community, but the new government of Kim Dae Jung in South Korea has made plain its desire for a rapprochement with the North. No state has agreed to back the stringent economic sanctions imposed by Washington on Iran.

The lack of international backing for the rogue doctrine became evident in February 1998, when President Clinton sought to mobilize support for military action against Iraq in response to Baghdad’s failure to open weapons sites to UN inspectors in accordance with the 1991 UN ceasefire agreement. Although the British government did agree to provide some military forces for joint action against Baghdad, most US allies provided only token backing, or none at all. Particularly striking was the lack of conviction from US allies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. [15] Although Washington made it clear that it possessed the will and capacity to act alone in the Gulf, the lack of international resolve contrasted sharply with the situation in 1991.

Insufficiently menacing “rogues.” To be successful, the rogue doctrine requires that the “rogues” be rogues. However, none of the rogues has engaged in unambiguously aggressive behavior since 1990 and most seem determined to establish good relations with the West. Saddam Hussein has displayed much bluster, but has done nothing to justify the sort of reaction that greeted his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Libya and North Korea have refrained from overtly aggressive moves, and both have sought to open new lines of communication with the West. Iran has gone even further, offering lucrative oil and gas development concessions to Western firms.

Moreover, none of the rogues currently wields the military muscle that Saddam Hussein was able to deploy in 1990. The BUR and the QDR both assume that America’s future regional adversaries will resemble the Iraq of 1990. The enemy would possess a force of 400,000-750,000 military personnel equipped with 2,000-4,000 tanks, 3,000-5,000 armored fighting vehicles, 500-1,000 combat aircraft, 100-200 naval vessels, and up to 50 submarines. [16] Yet Iraq currently possesses only about one third of this capability, and none of the other rogues is markedly stronger. Only North Korea comes close to the imaginary force in quantitative terms, but most experts believe that its weaponry is far inferior to that possessed by the South Koreans.

The election of Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran. American rhetoric has consistently portrayed Iran as an authoritarian state dominated by anti-American tyrants. “While their political systems vary,” Anthony Lake wrote of the rogues in 1994, “their leaders share a common antipathy toward popular participation that might undermine the existing regimes.” [17] Although this image might have described Iran in the Ayatollah Khomeini era, it is less persuasive now that the Iranian political system has exhibited increasing pluralism. Most striking was the election of Mohammad Khatami — an outspoken advocate of reform — as president in May 1997. Although Khatami faces a strong challenge from conservative clerics in the Iranian parliament, he has significantly diminished the anti-American tenor of Iranian public discourse and sought new openings to the West.

US ambivalence about war with Iraq. When the Clinton administration began to mobilize for a military confrontation with Iraq in early 1998, few in Washington thought that the American public would question the wisdom of such an action. Nevertheless, when Secretary Albright and other US leaders traveled to the American heartland to rally support for military action, they found unexpected ambivalence and dissent in the full glare of international television coverage. This probably encouraged Clinton to accept the compromise solution subsequently negotiated by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. [18]

The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. Perhaps the greatest blow to the rogue doctrine occurred on May 11 of this year, when the Indian government detonated the first of five nuclear devices and declared itself a nuclear power. This event, coupled with Pakistani nuclear tests three weeks later, shattered the proposition — as expressed earlier by Secretary Perry — that the demand for nuclear and chemical weapons comes “primarily” from the rogues. India and Pakistan clearly had progressed much further in the nuclear arena than any of the rogues. Both countries have a significant nuclear weapons capability along with a variety of delivery systems. Thus, US nonproliferation policy — focused so heavily on the rogue states — now must be redirected to take account of events in South Asia.

The new US opening to Iran. Secretary Albright recently called for a less antagonistic relationship with Iran. While condemning Tehran for its past support of terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear capability, Albright held out the hope that Iranian “good behavior” could lead to improved US-Iranian relations. In a speech on June 17, 1998, Albright stated: “We are ready to explore further ways to build mutual confidence and avoid misunderstandings. As the wall of mistrust comes down, we can develop with the Islamic Republic…a road map to normal relations.” Obviously, this is not the sort of language one uses to communicate with an outlaw regime; rather, it suggests the abandonment of “rogue state” terminology.

Taken together, these developments have undermined the rogue doctrine. Although it is possible that future events will reaffirm this paradigm, it will probably continue to lose its relevance in the years ahead.

Beyond the Rogues: US Military Doctrine in the Twenty-First Century

If the rogue doctrine does fade away, what will replace it? This is a critical question for the US military establishment and the nation at large. How the armed forces will be organized, trained and equipped depends on the nature of the adversaries considered most likely to threaten US security interests in the future. Below are two candidates for a “post-rogue state” military doctrine:

The “peer competitor” threat. Some military analysts argue that the US must prepare for the emergence of a “peer competitor” — another major military power — in the early decades of the twenty-first century. Such a competitor could compete with the United States on roughly equal terms. Or, alternatively, emerging powers that may not be able to challenge the US on a global scale “may have sufficient power to be a peer with the US in the theater of operations near them.” Accordingly, “potential regional peers are far more challenging threats than are the rogue regimes .” [20]

Clearly, only a handful of states — China, Russia and maybe India — could play such a role in the near future. Close examination of each of these states reveals numerous obstacles to their emergence as peer competitors during the next 20 years. Nevertheless, a peer competitor would provide a useful rationale for the preservation of a large, high-tech military capability.

♦ The “global policeman” model. This model envisions US forces serving as a global expeditionary force on behalf of the international community. Although this role enjoys very little support in Congress or among the public, many analysts believe that the United States will be forced to play it for lack of a credible alternative. US leaders are clearly reluctant to endow the United Nations with a robust military capability of its own; that would constitute too great a challenge to US global dominance. Yet they are afraid to ignore local crises, such as upheavals in Bosnia and Haiti, which could lead to greater international instability. Hence, the US military role in international crisis response and peacekeeping operations is likely to continue.

It is still too early to determine how US military strategy will evolve. The rogue doctrine has been remarkably successful over the past ten years, and may live on for a long time to come. If it continues to lose its credibility, however, an intense debate will ensure concerning the future aims and uses of the US military on the global stage.


[1] I first analyzed this strategy in Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).
[2] For a thorough account of these developments, see Lorna S. Jaffe, The Development of the Base Force (Washington, DC: Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 1993).
[3] Ibid., p. 19.
[4] Carl E. Vuono, “Versatile, Deployable, and Lethal: The Strategic Army in the 1990s and Beyond,” Sea Power (April 1990), pp. 59-61.
[5] Ibid., pp. 33-36.
[6] From the text of Bush’s address to the US Department of Defense, Annual Report for Fiscal Year 1992 (Washington, DC: US Department of Defense, January 1991). pp. 131-32.
[7] I elaborate on this point in Rogue States, pp. 3-34.
[8] Statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Washington, DC, March 19, 1991 (Xerox copy), p. 7.
[9] The only major difference between the two is that Aspin spoke of fighting two MRCs “nearly simultaneously” instead of completely simultaneously, in order to justify an additional reduction in US strength from 12 Army divisions in the Powell plan to ten in the BUR, and from 15 active Air Force tactical fighter wings to 13. For background and discussion, see Rogue States, pp. 97-119.
[10] Les Aspin, Bottom-Up Review: Force Structure Excerpts (Washington, DC: US Department of Defense, September 1, 1993), pp. 1, 5.
[11] Anthony Lake, “Confronting Backlash States,” Foreign Affairs 73/2 (March/April 1994), pp. 45-46.
[12] Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1995.
[13] Remarks by William Perry at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, April 18, 1996 (transcript provided by Federal News Service).
[14] For discussion, see Washington Post, May 11, 1997; “QDR: Marginal Changes,” Armed Forces Journal, June 1997, pp. 56-59.
[15] See New York Times, February 9 and 11, 1998.
[16] Aspin, Bottom-Up Review, p. 5.
[17] Lake, “Confronting Backlash States,” p. 46.
[18] New York Times, February 19, 1998.
[19] Remarks at Asia Society Dinner, New York City, June 17, 1998, as published by the US Department of State (electronic communication accessed at, on June 21, 1998).
[20] Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University, 1997 Strategic Assessment (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 1997), p. 233.

How to cite this article:

Michael Klare "The Rise and Fall of the “Rogue Doctrine”," Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998).

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