Reassessing the Pottery Barn Rule and the Way Forward in Iraq

Main Street, Cottage Grove Oregon

Before the Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged caution in US policy, citing the apocryphal Pottery Barn Rule: you break it, you own it! Well, the mess has been made and, like it or not, America now owns it. But for how long?

The anti-war movement has become reenergized; and the hawks are only one step behind. The political debate in America is becoming familiarly polarized around the question of what to do next in Iraq. Everything is running true-to-form: liberals demand an instantaneous pull-out, conservatives spout dribble about “supporting the troops,” Republicans stay on-message to “stay the course,” and Democrats can’t decide what to think about anything.

The present situation in Iraq is terribly fluid. It is also terribly terrible. This latter aspect so captures our attention that we seem incapable of analyzing the dynamic complexities of the present – or of developing a strategy for the future. The cacophony of opinion does not impress me as helpful in framing the issues, much less in properly assessing how to move forward. Both the pro-war and anti-war factions need to reexamine their positions and, if they cannot constructively contribute to the formulation of policy, shut their pie-holes so that others can.

And quickly. The American mandated three-month constitution writing process was about as successful as six-minute dating. Belated negotiations among the sectarian factions have broken down and the Iraqi Transitional National Assembly is refusing to even vote in support of the disastrous draft in advance of submitting it to its likely demise in a popular referendum. The process of democratization may be about to take a giant step backward. The United States needs to understand where to go from here.

This is a debate about the future, not about the past. Still it is instructive to see where we’ve been.

The Pre-War Anti-War Movement

Before the United States government invaded Iraq, protesters in America, the UK, and elsewhere in the world took to the streets to decry the decision to go to war. Though the opposition to violence was principally ideological, even then there were skeptics among the anti-war demonstrators who found the then-stated justification for military conflict – Baghdad’s control of “weapons of mass destruction” – insufficient. What these skeptics could not know then, but would soon come to learn, was that their rationale against military violence would soon be strengthened to a moral certainty. The Bush administration had misled the world: Sadaam Hussain possessed no chemical or biological weapons and posed no clear and present danger to anyone outside of Iraq itself.

Bombing for Peace Is Like Fucking for Virginity

But the Bush administration had already committed itself to war in Iraq, long before its should-we-or-shouldn’t-we Kabuki was being played out in media events and at the United Nations. In fact, President Bush’s instructions to his national security team in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terror was to develop a rationale for sacking Baghdad, notwithstanding that Iraq had nothing to do with the hijackings or the al Qaeda terrorists who perpetrated them.

Who would Jeses Bomb?

So, to war we went. It didn’t take long for American and British forces to occupy Iraq, and scarcely longer for the WMD justification to be proven a paranoid fabrication. There were simply no such weapons to be found, anywhere. The stated rationale for the war shifted from preemptive strike against the threat posed by WMD to “regime change.” On the one hand, the regime-change approach seemed a brilliant and unifying rationalization for the war, since everyone could agree that Sadaam Hussain was a bad guy of the first order. On the other hand, it raised new and important grounds to oppose the war, though it was already a fait accompli. Legalists would correctly point out that it is a violation of international law for one sovereign nation to violently overthrow the government of another sovereign nation.

Freedom is Untidy

But Washington and London continued to beat the tattoo of “freedom” and “democracy,” themes that resonate deeply in America and Britain. Unfortunately for all concerned – especially the hapless Iraqi civilians who had already endured death, destruction, and suffering – a countervailing drumbeat was heard elsewhere in Iraq. Emboldened by the incompetent and obviously under-manned occupying force, a brutal and murderous insurgency arose, bent on expelling US troops and undermining the provisional Iraqi government put in place by the United States. Neither the furtive, dark-of-night handover of power by American administrators to its handpicked Iraqi successors, or subsequently democratic measures to Iraqify the government have stemmed the tide of the insurgency. To make matters worse, Iraq became the Mecca for Islamic jihaddists, who made their murderous hajj from throughout the region. Al Qaeda, which previously had nothing to do with Iraq, was suddenly the hottest brand-name in the country.

And the violence continues. More than two years after President Bush declared and end to major combat operations beneath a banner that read “Mission Accomplished,” undermanned, poorly armored American forces continue to fight and die in a war that has no end in sight. US led efforts to mollify the Iraqi population, such as the recent constitution-building fiasco, seem every bit as likely to lead the country to full-blown civil war as to rally the public around democratic institutions. Americans are once again beginning to question the wisdom of military aggression in Iraq. A mere 38% of the country approves of the administration’s handling of war, causing Mr. Bush’s overall approval rating to fall to its lowest point yet, and among the very lowest any president has seen since Gallup began polling in 1930. Anti-war protestors are again seen in the streets of big cities and small towns alike. Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son to the war, has become a one-woman media circus, galvanizing attention to the anti-war movement from her encampment outside Mr. Bush’s vacation retreat in Crawford, Texas.

We Love War

As the anti-war movement again finds its voice, the “pro-war” reactionaries have also taken to the streets. As both sides vie for media coverage, the country seems genuinely perplexed and anguished about what to do next.

Unfortunately, the issues are not as clean and simple as they were before the invasion and an obvious path does not suggest itself.

Near as I can tell, supporters of the war fall into two camps: optimists and idiots. The optimists hold to the belief that American forces can defeat the insurgents and stifle the jihaddists, while American nation-builders can hand-hold Iraqis through their first, tentative steps of democratization. In the minds of the optimists, the stakes are as high as the likelihood of success, since a democratic Iraq will inspire countries throughout the Middle East to opt for democratic change. The optimist-in-chief is Vice President Cheney, who announced at the end of May that the insurgency was in its “last throes,” just before Iraq experienced some of its bloodiest weeks since the invasion in the spring of 2003, both for Iraqis and for American troops.

The idiots rally behind vacuous slogans like “We Support Our Troops!” – as though there was anyone in America, for or against the war, who didn’t fervently wish for the safety of American service personnel. They are unable to articulate a rational connection between their professed compassion for the marines and soldiers in Iraq and the desire to have them continue to face death and mutilation in a prolonged conflict. Mr. Bush is the principal voice of the idiots, suggesting that “staying the course” will “honor” those who have already been killed or injured.

One thing is clear about most of who continue to advocate in favor of the war: these are people who supported the invasion and are reluctant to admit that their support was misplaced.

Told You So!

But things aren’t so easy for the anti-war movement either.

It is not difficult to say, in retrospect, that the war in Iraq was an unmitigated disaster. The war brought havoc and misery to the people of Iraq, and the end of the horror is not yet in sight. Tremendous damage has been done to America’s moral authority and military stature. America’s relations with many of its closest allies have been strained. The war has diverted resources and attention from the extremely important reconstruction and security efforts in Afghanistan and allowed the Taliban to gain a new toe-hold when it seemed that they had been eradicated. It has proven tremendously costly, in purely economic terms, to both America and Iraq. And there can be little doubt that the war has emboldened Islamic extremists and made the world a more dangerous place.  It is easy to be anti-war if all that means is to cast judgment about what has already transpired. And it is very difficult to understand how those calling themselves “pro-war” can assess the situation and still argue that the war was a good idea.

But condemnation of what has already transpired gives no clear direction for the future. The practical reality of the situation cannot be ignored, and we cannot blind ourselves to the fact that a military pull-out will have real, sobering costs.

Looking Forward: Nothing but Tough Choices

Just as the neocon optimists have always envisioned regional change emanating from a successful political transformation in Iraq, anyone can see that broader untoward consequences will germinate from failure. Civil war in Iraq, which looks probable now, becomes a virtual certainty without US troops helping to build the operational capacity of the Iraqi national police force. There is also no turning back the clock on the establishment of Iraq as the breeding-ground-of-choice for terrorists, al Qaeda and otherwise. While the invasion of Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with “the war on terror,” the ongoing fighting has plenty to do with it.

The United States is now more vulnerable to international terrorism, oil insecurity, and general political hostility in the Middle East. Pulling out American troops will certainly influence each of these concerns, as well as entrenching the insurgency, which will only have to wait-out the withdrawal before fully asserting itself. What, then, should America do? Much as we might like to, we can’t go back to the status quo ante.

Structuring the Debate

In addressing such a complex situation, untested alternatives, and unpredictable consequences, much of the present anti-war and pro-war noise is counterproductive. Those anti-war voices I’ve branded as legalists and skeptics – and I count myself in both camps — should simply bug out of the debate. Yes, they are correct: the war was immoral, illegal, and prosecuted under false justifications. Yes, history will remember Mr. Bush and his ilk as arrogant, callous, imperialist, and far-worse. Yes, the legalists and skeptics were right when so many others were wrong. But other than teaching us to have a healthy distrust of Bush administration policies and pronouncements, these folks contribute nothing to the forward-looking discussions.

The idiots are equally unhelpful. Jingoistic, mindlessly militaristic catchphrases do not help us to understand the issues and choices ahead. Whichever way America turns, lives are in the balance – in Iraq, in the United States, and throughout the world. This is the time for well-informed, thoughtful assessment of principle and practicality, not knee-jerk sloganeering. The children should cede the floor to the adults.

Any reasonable decision about the future of Iraq must boil down to a debate between the optimists and their pessimist counterparts. What course of action is most likely to minimize the untoward consequences of our errors? It is equally necessary for the optimists to acknowledge that there is no perfect outcome to this fiasco and for the pessimists to recognize the exigencies of making the best of a horrendous mess rather then simply doomsaying.

And let’s not forget the constructive role that can be played by the idealists – the pacifists and noninterventionists who simply believe it is wrong for a foreign military to dictate the terms and conditions of peace to a sovereign nation. When the dialectic of the pragmatists is stalemated by uncertainty, our political leaders can do worse than revert to decision-making based on principle.

The war in Iraq was wrong from the start. But that is old news, and each new day brings a imperative to avoid fresh mistakes. The situation is dynamic and the analysis problematic. It is time for the Pentagon, the State Department, and the United Nations to openly discuss the alternatives to a protracted guerilla war in Iraq, rather than simply allowing momentum to carry policy forward. If America does not have to moral courage and political will to engage in this kind of honest, open discussion, then perhaps it should pull up its stakes, admit defeat, take responsibility for the devastation it leaves in its wake, and refocus its energy to addressing the global consequences of its failure.

We broke it, but do we really have to own it? Do the Iraqis even want that? Perhaps they would ultimately be better off absorbing the loss and having the bull out of the china shop. This reconsideration of the Pottery Barn Rule must happen, and happen soon.


10 September 2005: Fred Kaplan, whose excellent essays on military matters on Slate should be required reading for Mr. Rumsfeld, writes an interesting critique of the millitary assessments and suggestions offered by, among others, Gen. Wesley Clark.

2 Responses to “Reassessing the Pottery Barn Rule and the Way Forward in Iraq”

  1. 1 noactive 11 January 2010 at 7:38 am

    Reassessing the Pottery Barn Rule and the Way Forward in Iraq .Thanks for nice post.I added to my twitter.

  2. 2 ankitatiwari022 10 October 2019 at 2:45 am

    really very nice so i would like to thanks for this blog good job

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