Back in April 2004, when the political breeze was blowing rightward, kite-cum-journalist Bob Woodward gave readers of his then-new book, Plan of Attack, an “inside” account of the Bush administration during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Among its treasure trove of conventional wisdom nuggets, the most alluring to the mainstream press was Woodward’s discussion of the “Pottery Barn Rule.”
As reported by Woodward, Colin Powell evoked the rule when explaining to President Bush the consequences of invading Iraq. “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” Powell told him. And according to the dictates of the rule, first coined by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in 2003, if you break Iraq, you own it.
Despite the rule’s august centrist origins, one could plausibly argue that the analogy is utterly inane, the kind of simulacrum of analysis offered up by a culture whose social imagination is limited to the confines of a television screen. Its aim is not to provoke thinking, but stop it, as even the gentlest critical prodding makes the whole thing fall to shambles.
For starters, there’s the mundane point that Pottery Barn has no such policy. When accidental breaks do occur, the company simply writes them off as losses. (It’s one of this administration’s lesser casualties of truth, but there nonetheless.)
More on the analogy’s terms: How, one might ask, can a nation of 25 million citizens, brutalized for decades by a sadistic dictator, be seriously equated with an inanimate piece of hardened clay? Similarly, what do you do when you now “own” a piece of pottery that has shattered into a thousand tiny shards? You don’t hold onto the shards. You throw them away.
But such criticisms, however valid, are strictly negative. They tear down the Pottery Barn Rule without putting anything else in its place. Perhaps, despite its flaws, the rule can be resurrected, made more conducive to reality, by adding some imaginative nuances.
Many analysts have suggested that the United States’ actions in Iraq have been incredibly incompetent, akin to a man who walks into Pottery Barn, breaks something but hopes to pay for it. However, on his way to the cashier, he bumps into a shelf, sending an array of earthenware plates and mugs crashing to the ground. Apologizing profusely, he then backs into another shelf, toppling it over and creating another mess. At this point, the fed-up employees simply look at the man and tell him to go, now, before he breaks anything else. (And in fact, according to a September poll by the U.S. State Department, 65 percent of Iraqis favor an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.)
Unfortunately, this analogy too fails, in that it absolves the United States of the responsibility for its actions, which have been not only incompetent, but criminal. By torturing Iraqi prisoners, indiscriminately using banned chemical weapons like white phosphorus and, indeed, breaching the U.N. Charter by invading in the first place, the United States has behaved more like a disgruntled ex-employee with a grievance, who seeks redress by walking into Pottery Barn and going postal.
But this analogy should not end there. Once a crime is committed, civilized societies hold the perpetrators responsible. And if those responsible are rich enough, they are made to pay for the destruction they have caused.
That Iraq has been broken is now so self-evident that even our faith-based president appears to have become vaguely cognizant of the painful fact. To put it in terms that he might understand, all of our cruise missiles and all of our men will not be able to put it back together again. We should leave now, and use the millions we’ve been spending militarily as reparations for the unforgivable harm we have done the Iraqi people.