Colin Powell invoked it before the invasion, telling aides that if the US went into Iraq “you’re going to be owning this place”. John Kerry pledged his allegiance to it during the first presidential debate, saying: “Now, if you break it, you made a mistake. It’s the wrong thing to do. But you own it.”
It’s the so-called Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.” Pottery Barn, a chain of stores that sells upmarket home furnishings in shopping malls across America, apparently has an in-store policy that if you shatter anything while shopping, you have to pay for it, because “you own it”.
In US foreign policy, this little dictate has come to wield more influence than the Geneva conventions and the US army’s law of land warfare combined – except it turns out that the rule doesn’t even exist. “In the rare instance that something is broken in the store, it’s written off as a loss,” an exasperated company spokesperson recently told a journalist.
Never mind that. The imaginary policy of a store selling $80 corkscrews continues to be the favoured blunt instrument with which to whack anyone who dares to suggest that the time has come to withdraw troops from Iraq: sure the war was wrong, the argument goes, but we can’t stop now – you break it, you own it.
Though not invoking the chain store by name, Nicholas Kristof laid out this argument in a recent New York Times column. “Our mistaken invasion has left millions of Iraqis desperately vulnerable, and it would be inhumane to abandon them now. If we stay in Iraq, there is still some hope that Iraqis will come to enjoy security and better lives, but if we pull out we will be condemning Iraqis to anarchy, terrorism and starvation, costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of children over the next decade.”
Let’s start with the idea that the US is helping to provide security. On the contrary, the presence of US troops is provoking violence on a daily basis. The truth is that as long as the troops remain, the country’s entire security apparatus – occupation forces as well as Iraqi soldiers and police – will be exclusively dedicated to fending off resistance attacks, leaving a security vacuum when it comes to protecting regular Iraqis. If the troops pulled out, Iraqis would still face insecurity, but they would be able to devote their local security resources to regaining control over their cities and neighbourhoods.
As for preventing “anarchy”, the US plan to bring elections to Iraq seems designed to spark a civil war – the civil war needed to justify an ongoing presence for US troops no matter who wins the elections. It was always clear that the Shia majority, which has been calling for immediate elections for more than a year, was never going to accept any delay in the election timetable. And it was equally clear that by destroying Falluja in the name of preparing the city for elections, much of the Sunni leadership would be forced to call for an election boycott.
When Kristof asserts that US forces should stay in Iraq to save hundreds of thousands of children from starvation, it’s hard to imagine what he has in mind. Hunger in Iraq is not merely the humanitarian fallout of a war – it is the direct result of the US decision to impose brutal “shock therapy” policies on a country that was already sickened and weakened by 12 years of sanctions. Paul Bremer’s first act on the job was to lay off close to 500,000 Iraqis, and his primary accomplishment – for which he has just been awarded the presidential medal of freedom – was to oversee a “reconstruction” process that systematically stole jobs from needy Iraqis and handed them to foreign firms, sending the unemployment rate soaring to 67%.
And the worst of the shocks are yet to come. On November 21, the group of industrialised countries known as the Paris Club finally unveiled its plan for Iraq’s unpayable debt. Rather than forgiving it outright, the Paris Club laid out a three-year plan to write off 80%, contingent on Iraq’s governments adhering to a strict International Monetary Fund austerity programme. According to early drafts, that programme includes “restructuring of state-owned enterprises” (read: privatisation), a plan that Iraq’s ministry of industry predicts will require laying off an additional 145,000 workers. In the name of “free-market reforms”, the IMF also wants to eliminate the programme that provides each Iraqi family with a basket of food – the only barrier to starvation for millions of citizens. There is additional pressure to eliminate the food rations coming from the World Trade Organisation, which, at Washington’s urging, is considering accepting Iraq as a member – provided it adopts certain “reforms”.
So let’s be absolutely clear: the US, having broken Iraq, is not in the process of fixing it. It is merely continuing to break the country and its people by other means, using not only F-16s and Bradleys, but now the less flashy weaponry of WTO and IMF conditions, followed by elections designed to transfer as little power to Iraqis as possible. This is what Argentinian writer Rodolfo Walsh, writing before his assassination in 1977 by the military junta, described as “planned misery”. And the longer the US stays in Iraq, the more misery it will plan.
But if staying in Iraq is not the solution, neither are easy bumper-sticker calls to pull the troops out and spend the money on schools and hospitals at home. Yes, the troops must leave, but that can be only one plank of a credible and moral antiwar platform. What of Iraq’s schools and hospitals – the ones that were supposed to be fixed by Bechtel but never were? Too often, antiwar forces have shied away from speaking about what Americans owe Iraq. Rarely is the word “compensation” spoken, let alone the more loaded “reparations”.
Antiwar forces have also failed to offer concrete support for the political demands coming out of Iraq. For instance, when the Iraqi national assembly condemned the Paris Club deal for forcing the Iraqi people to pay Saddam’s “odious” debts and robbing them of their economic sovereignty, the antiwar movement was virtually silent, save the dogged but undersupported Jubilee Iraq. And while US soldiers aren’t protecting Iraqis from starvation, the food rations certainly are – so why isn’t safeguarding this desperately needed programme one of our central demands?
The failure to develop a credible platform beyond “troops out” may be one reason the antiwar movement remains stalled, even as opposition to the war deepens. Because the Pottery Barn rulers do have a point: breaking a country should have consequences for the breakers. Owning the broken country should not be one of them, but how about paying for the repairs?
A version of this column was first published in The Nation