Iraq: Revisiting the Pottery Barn Rule

Iraq: Revisiting the Pottery Barn Rule

Iraq: Revisiting the Pottery Barn Rule

The United States broke a nation of human beings. It owes them an apology—and restitution.


In 2006, a visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, accidentally became an artwork. Let’s call him Dude Descending a Staircase in honor of that merry prankster Marcel Duchamp. This particular visitor tripped over his feet as he was going down the museum stairs. As he fell, he knocked into three large Qing Dynasty vases that rested on their mounts in a recess.

All three vases fell to the ground and smashed into countless pieces.

In a current exhibit on violence and art in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima—“Damage Control” at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC—the German artist Thomas Demand has turned this act of destruction into a work of art. It is a single photograph of the fragments of the vase on the landing, with a hint of orderly English landscaping visible through the window. The work, Landing, is a recreation of the damage, a reminder that sometimes all that remains of Humpty Dumpty when he falls from the wall is the forensic reconstruction.

As I stood in front of this photograph, I thought about Colin Powell and Iraq. You might remember Powell’s famous quip about Pottery Barn. In his advice to President George W. Bush before the Iraq invasion, Powell warned the president of the Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you own it. The United States would be responsible, Powell implied, for whatever wreckage the military incurred in its headlong dash to unseat Saddam Hussein.

Pottery Barn actually has no such a rule, and it was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who “made up the whole thing.” But Powell, who apologized to Pottery Barn, still embraces the message.

“We were essentially the new government until a government could be put in place,” he told David Samuels in The Atlantic. “And in the second phase of this conflict, which was beginning after the statue fell, we made serious mistakes in not acting like a government. One, maintaining order. Two, keeping people from destroying their own property. Three, not having in place security forces—either ours or theirs or a combination of the two to keep order.”

We did none of those things, and Iraq, as a result, is broken. Nor has the United States made much effort to own it—that is, to own up to our responsibility for breaking the country. We gave up trying to sweep up the pieces. At this stage, all we do is take photographs of the damage, putting them in the newspaper accompanied by descriptions of the carnage. We mull over the consequences. We hope that our chickens don’t come home to roost.

The real Pottery Barn rule—the same rule that all retailers have—is to write off the broken merchandise as a loss. And that is what we have done to Iraq.

The latest violence in Iraq rivals the levels last seen during wartime. Last year, between 8,000 and 10,000 civilians were killed, the highest number since 2008. According to one recent study, half a million Iraqis have died from war-related causes since the 2003 US invasion, a figure that includes indirect casualties from the breakdown of the country’s social structure.

The recent successes of Al Qaeda–linked insurgents in Falluja and Ramadi have received particular attention from US newspapers because of the role played by US soldiers in earlier fighting in those two places. Remarkably, a relatively small number of insurgents—120 in Ramadi and 200 in Falluja—seem to have been enough to take those towns. But the insurgents are sufficiently well equipped to make the Iraqi government worry that they could take over Baghdad as well.

The persistent chaos in Iraq is partly a function of continued sectarian divisions between a Shiite-dominated al-Maliki government and Sunni insurgents. What passes for reconciliation these days in Iraq is the government’s attempt to reproduce the Sunni Awakening in Anbar by paying Sunni tribesmen to fight against the insurgents. After all, Al Qaeda is as unpalatable to most Sunnis as it is to most Shiites. There is also the larger geopolitical context in which Iraq is crumbling, including the regional struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia and their proxies. The disintegration of Syria plays into the conflict as well, for the Al Qaeda militants in Iraq have received a boost from their campaign against the Assad government next door.

The effort to replay the Sunni Awakening, which the United States used to its advantage after 2006, will be a great deal more difficult now. “From 2006 to 2008, tribesmen were able to beat Al Qaeda with the cooperation of American forces and the support of the Iraqi government,” Sunni politician Osama al-Nujaifi told The New York Times. “After gaining victory over Al Qaeda, those tribesmen were rewarded with the cutting of their salaries, with assassination and displacement.” Many Iraqis complain that the United States has not done enough to pressure the al-Maliki government to heal the rift with the country’s Sunni minority.

The last US combat troops left Iraq at the end of 2011. Washington failed to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Baghdad and so followed through on its threat of a “zero option.” Only about 300 US soldiers remain at the US embassy—mostly guarding the complex—and another 100 oversee the supply of the Iraqi army. The Pentagon just recently broached the possibility, in addition to upping the flow of arms to Iraq, of sending over some trainers.

The prospect of re-engaging militarily with Iraq is far from appealing. “Having unleashed an unexpected insurgency, the U.S. felt obliged to deal with it, at a cost of thousands of American lives,” editorializes the Los Angeles Times. “But the statute of limitations on that obligation has run out, and when U.S. forces left in 2011, Iraqis were happy to see them go.”

This is true—to a point. Inserting US troops in Iraq—even as trainers—makes no sense. We would just tumble down the staircase and break a few more vases. But is that all we have: an impoverished choice between troops and no troops?

I recently stumbled across a powerful article by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker about the impact of the country’s implosion, not only on Iraqis but also on US soldiers. In “Atonement,” he writes of a fatal collision in Baghdad between a contingent of US Marines and a family of Iraqi-Armenians trying to flee the violence. Mistaking the family for a carful of insurgents, the Marines opened fire, killing the husband and two sons. Eight years later, one of those Marines, Lu Lobello, beset by guilt and nightmares, tracked down the family in their California exile. He met them. He tried to explain himself. He apologized.

There was nothing about apologies in the Pottery Barn rule. It was all about objects and ownership. But Iraq has never been simply a china shop. It is a country of people. When you break a person, do you own them? Of course not. And what we did in Iraq was far from accidental.

I’m not aware of any US administration that has apologized for our military involvement in that country. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein does not excuse us of responsibility for what happened afterward. So, we could start by apologizing for our mistakes.

But when it comes to countries, apologies are not sufficient. There should also be an element of restitution.

In Prague, I recently learned of a plan that a Charter 77 member had for dealing with all the Communist apparatchiks who had interrogated and imprisoned and immiserated his colleagues. “Send them to the forest,” the fellow recommended. I had visions of a firing squad executing its own form of retribution. But no, he meant something entirely different. The Communist system had made a mess of nature during its four decades of headlong industrialization. Those responsible should simply spend a year cleaning up the forests and waterways. After a year, he imagined, they would be clean: the forests and the apparatchiks alike.

Alas, the Czech Republic never did follow this sensible plan. Could the United States send all the Lu Lobellos back to Iraq to clean up the environment, rebuild schools and repair what has been broken? Many US veterans would likely welcome such a program, for both its employment and mental health benefits.

We can never reconstruct those Qing vases. But surely we can do more than just mourn their passing and stare at the wreckage.

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