In the run up to the 2003 Iraq war, Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly argued to President Bush that states have a responsibility to fix countries if they break it. What later became known as the “Pottery Barn Rule,” many have debated its merit in foreign policy. With the expected pullout of ISAF forces in Afghanistan in 2016 and the emergence of ISIS in Iraq, the implications of the rule are significant. Does the United States have a responsibility to fix countries like Afghanistan or Iraq?
We asked 4 experts the following question.
The “Pottery Barn Rule” implies that states have a responsibility to fix countries they have broken, like the United States in Iraq, France in Mali, or Belgium in Rwanda. Does the “Pottery Barn Rule” have merit in foreign policy?
Kristen Silverberg, Former Assistant Secretary of State and former Ambassador to the European Union
According to Secretary Powell, the “Pottery Barn rule” was meant to make the unobjectionable point that, as temporary occupier of Iraq, the U.S. would assume responsibility for governing the Iraqi people. As he said to President Bush, “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.”
In the intervention-averse years since, however, the Pottery Barn rule has acquired a logic of its own: that any decision to intervene militarily in a country necessarily endows the U.S. with ownership of every bit turmoil that follows. It’s an argument for staying home. Like its corollary, the Powell Doctrine (intervene only under specific conditions and then, with overwhelming force), the Pottery Barn rule cabins policymakers to two choices: either avoid military engagement altogether or commit in full, including to the possibility of long-term intervention. According to the rule’s proponents, policymakers shouldn’t debate the merits of a limited engagement with limited aims (protecting civilians, for example) but should commit militarily only if they are prepared to “own it all.”
The hazard in this approach is that limited intervention may offer the best chance of avoiding a more substantial commitment. Early U.S. engagement in Syria, for example, would have reduced the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe, which is now destabilizing the region, and emboldened moderate anti-Assad forces over extremist elements. Every risk we attempted to avoid by staying out of Syria has now materialized, raising the specter of a longer and harder slog. Policymakers need options, not false choices.
Gabriella Blum, Rita E. Hauser Professor of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Harvard Law School
International law does not require nations who go to war to rebuild what they have lawfully broken in another country, even though some international lawyers and policymakers would like rebuilding to be law.
Yet in an era which no longer allows victory to be somebody’s mere military defeat, but always factors in war’s effects on the local population and local politics, the Pottery Barn principle does operate as a powerful disincentive against military interventions by liberal democracies. Military campaigns are no longer assessed solely by the number of enemy combatants killed or the amount of territory seized but also by their ability to adhere to and promote liberal commitments to human rights and prosperity. Human security everywhere is now defined as a vital part of our national security. This is both a normative ideal and a strategic realization of our complex global security environment. Benevolence and care for the local population therefore become as much a part of operational as airstrikes or detention.
Though there is much to celebrate in the growing humanitarian demands from warring countries, the Pottery Barn principle raises the cost of every intervention to a prohibitive degree even when intervention is justified and needed. The result is an urge for isolationism that cannot be a sound strategy, either for national security or for human security.
Nation-building may well prove to be the right thing to do – during conflict, post-conflict, or (more importantly) regardless of conflict. But it should not be required as a condition for the legitimacy of every military campaign.
Danielle Pletka, Senior Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy, AEI
There’s always been appeal in slogans; Madison Avenue bets the bank on that every year. But they’re not much of a guide when it comes to foreign policy. And inevitably, what sounds good one year doesn’t work that well the next. Consider General Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule,” a poor excuse for a pseudo-policy in an arena where standards are remarkably low already. So it was the United States that broke Iraq, eh? Not Saddam, mind you? Not the Iran-Iraq war? Not Ba’athist ideology?
Another question: Was Iraq “broken” when Barack Obama “got it”? Not noticeably. It has broken rather because a war that no one appears to care about – Syria – has spilled over into Iraq, as it has into Lebanon and elsewhere. Because powers now shaking Iraq’s foundations should never have risen from the grave of the Iraq war, and were permitted to do so because of the indolence and callousness of Western leaders in the face of extremists and tyrants.
Better than slogans or mindless assignments of responsibility (Belgium in Rwanda? What?), the right answer is for the United States to have a president with a foreign policy vision that shapes his or her understanding of the nation’s role and responsibilities in the world, with a clear understanding of interests and morality. That vision will never be a cookie cutter model of foreign policy, but it will help leaders and the public better weigh the challenges now facing us.
Shibley Telhami, Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Brookings Institution
This is a wonderful rule when in fact you can fix what you broke. But when you discover that the more you try to fix it the more you break it, it is entirely unwise to continue the damage in the name of fixing it. The outcome in Iraq was entirely predictable; I was not the only one who argued in 2002 (The Stakes: America and the Middle East; and initiated the ad that prepared in the NYT on September 26, 2002, by major scholars of international relations against the war for that reason), that after dismantling the state in Iraq, it would be hard to replace it and that we will end up with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and it’s allies. There are some things that become a humpy dumpy once broken. The U.S. certainly has some responsibility to help when possible, but my worry about the discourse is that the focus on the things that we could have done better since the 2003 war diverts attention from the original sin that created the Humpty Dumpty: the Iraq war itself.
Allison Stanger, Leng Professor of International Politics and Economics, Middlebury College
“You break it, you own it.” The so-called Pottery Barn rule used to describe General Colin Powell’s hesitance at the prospect of full military intervention in Iraq certainly rang true for American policymakers on multiple occasions, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan. For both strategic and ethical reasons, boots on the ground committed the United States to responsibility for the unintended consequences that inevitably follow in the wake of any military intervention.
The Pottery Barn rule thus has merit in foreign policy, but it also has a statute of limitations with a ragged endpoint when intervention has been privatized. After billions of contract dollars had been poured into Iraq to build democracy after dictatorship and the capacity for the Iraqi state to police its territory and defend itself from external invasion, the U.S. effectively transferred ownership (sovereignty) to the Iraqi government when its troops departed. Contractors, aid workers, and diplomats remained behind. As of January 2014, the State Department still employed some 5000 contractors, 2000 of which were estimated to be Americans. Should the Jihadists reach Baghdad, they are unlikely to care that these infidels don’t wear uniforms.
While airstrikes alone have been seen as a “no-strings attached” option to which the Pottery Barn rule does not apply, they can break plenty. Once considered NATO’s successful intervention because it involved no boots on the ground, Libya is today held up as something to avoid. NATO airstrikes broke it, no one had to own it, and U.S. diplomats, contractors, and above all civilian populations paid the price. Though the commitment of air strikes and military advisors might appear to indicate otherwise, the Obama administration’s main concern in Iraq today is to prevent another Benghazi, which means protecting the Embassy. Breaking it, even when you don’t own it, turns out to be far from cost-free.