The Pottery Barn Rule Updated

It was the summer of 2002. The Bush administration's top officials knew that they were going into Iraq in a big way. They were then in planning mode, but waiting until fall to launch their full-throttle campaign to persuade Congress and the American people to back them. As White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who oversaw the selling of the invasion, put it at the time, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

For them, it was a complete no-brainer. The U.S. military against Saddam Hussein's rickety army? It would be, as a neocon supporter put it, a "cakewalk." In fact, they were already thinking about where to turn next. As the insider quip of the pre-invasion months had it, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." One key figure, however, had his doubts. According to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, Secretary of State Colin Powell offered this warning to the president: "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." Woodward noted as well that "privately, Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it."

In fact, Pottery Barn had no such rule, but what might be thought of as the Powell rule turned out to be on the mark in ways even he couldn't have imagined. Once things began to go desperately wrong, there was, of course, no way to roll back the invasion and "ownership" of Iraq would prove to be inheritable. The next president, who came to power in part by opposing the war and swore that, once in the Oval Office, he'd end it and get the U.S. military out for good, is now the less-than-proud owner of Iraq War 3.0. And if ever there was a nation that was broken, it's Iraq.

In the end, the Powell rule turned out to apply to every country the U.S. military touched in those years, including Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. In each instance, hopes in Washington ran soaringly high. In each instance, the country was broken. In each instance, the U.S. ended up "owning" it in some increasingly horrific way. Worst of all, in no instance could Washington bring itself to stop fighting in one fashion or another, whether with Special Forces, drones, or in the case of Iraq all of the above and thousands of new trainers dispatched to stand up a broken army created by the Bush administration and into which Washington had sunk $25 billion. Failure across the board would be the story of Washington's twenty-first century in the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, and yet somehow the only lesson that seemed to be learned was that, militarily, more -- never less -- had to be done.

In "America's Got War," retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and historian William Astore suggests that, were the U.S. an individual, we would immediately recognize what such behavior was -- addiction -- and act accordingly.