The No-Exit Strategy

Bush broke Iraq. Why trust him to fix it?

"Lovely to look at, delightful to hold," said the little signs on the shelves of a gift shop in my hometown. "But if you break it, consider it sold." Apparently the store got the concept from Mike Huckabee's mother.

"When I was a little kid," the former Arkansas governor recalled during the last Republican presidential debate, "if I went into a store with my mother, she had a simple rule for me. If I picked something off the shelf of the store and I broke it, I bought it."

This stroll down Memory Aisle was Huckabee's oh-so-folksy way of explaining why U.S. troops must not leave Iraq until the Shiites lie down with the Sunnis and the Kurds. By invading Iraq, he said, "we essentially broke it. It's our responsibility to do the best we can to try to fix it before we just turn away."

As applied to Iraq, this metaphor is most commonly associated with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who says he used it in trying to dissuade President Bush from invading. I'm not sure how much credit Powell deserves for his caution, since right after he spent two and half hours explaining to his boss why the war was a mistake he devoted his talents to convincing the American public and the world that it was both justified and necessary.

Still, contrary to Bob Woodward's account in his 2004 book Plan of Attack, Powell says he should not be blamed for referring to the "you break it, you own it" principle as "the Pottery Barn rule." New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman takes credit for coining that phrase, which irked the housewares chain, inasmuch as that has never been its policy. "In the rare instance that something is broken in the store," an exasperated spokesman told the St. Petersburg Times a few years ago, "it's written off as a loss."

Whatever its merits as a cost-minimizing tactic in retailing, "you break it, you own it" isn't bad as a cautionary principle in foreign affairs. But as a plan for what to do after you've ignored the warning, it's worse than useless. As Gen. David Petraeus' recent congressional testimony confirmed, the reason not to go in has become the rationale for staying indefinitely.

One problem with "you break it, you own it" is the ambiguity of the pronoun. As Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) noted in his exchange with Huckabee during the debate, "you" did not invade Iraq; neither did "we." The president and his men made that disastrous decision, based on a ridiculously broad understanding of self-defense and willful blindness to the inevitability of unintended consequences.

Huckabee, who seems to agree the invasion was a mistake, urges us to save "the honor of this country" by trusting the same people who made this mess to clean it up. "We can't leave until we've left with honor," he insists.

And what if that's not possible? What if all that Bush has left us to choose from is different degrees of dishonor?

We can't leave, because the civil war will escalate, terrorists will be emboldened, and Iraq will break into hostile fiefdoms. We can't stay, because the U.S. occupation is inciting violence, discouraging political accommodation, draining our treasury, straining our armed forces, and costing the lives of American soldiers. Yet those are the only two options, and there is little reason to think they will look any better in one year or five or 10.

Huckabee's formulation of Powell's rule is reminiscent of John Kerry's in the September 2004 presidential debate: "If you break it, you fix it." That's rather different from the original idea, which was about compensating the owner of the shattered item, not about trying to glue the shards back together. It's not clear what compensation would mean in the context of Iraq, but refraining from breaking more stuff seems like the least we can do.

© Copyright 2007 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • ||

    A lot of people are being forced to pay for the Iraq war, even though they have been consistently and strongly opposed to the venture.
    The honorable thing, I would think, would be to stop impoverishing them. Also, many soldiers, who signed up to defend their country or perhaps their state now find themselves fighting in a country that they want nothing to do with.

    The solution is to spin off the war. The Pentagon should make tours in Iraq voluntary, and contingent on voluntary donations by its supporters. If the conduct of the Iraq war was limited to what was possible with charitable donations and willing participants, then the matter would generate considerably less acrimony.

  • The Artist Formerly Know as Tr||

    I don't even know who we are fighting anymore in Iraq. Is there a clearly defined emeny? Has there ever been? I watched General Petraeus and the American Ambassador to Iraq testify before the senate, and most of their answers were full of incomprehensible political double speak. It all depends on what your definition of "is" is. WTF. Bring em home, and lets repair the Army, these men and woman have done more than anyone could have asked.

  • ||

    Why do the security guards always follow me around when I walk around the store?

  • ||

    Cognitive dissonance: We "have no quarrel with the people of Iran, only the government" yet OUR NATIONAL HONOR depends on following our government slavishly.

    Hmm.

    "One rule for thee, one rule for me"?

  • edna||

    disappointing piece. excluded middle fallacy.

    Is there a clearly defined emeny?

    sic.

    yes, there once was. they're gone; that war was won. unfortunately, we did not use the seinfeld/costanza rule of knowing when to say, "thanks!" and leave. and that view of the war is totally lost on mr. sullum.

  • ||

    Scant, pathetic gains and almost no evidence = The Surge Is Working!

    Slightly fewer US deaths / increased Iraqi deaths = Violence is Down!

    The Bush administration is so good at bald-faced lying, they should take it to the next step. Just say that there are no US troops in Iraq. Trot out Tony Snow and have him saying the troops are pulling out. The Wall Street Journal and the NY Post can run full page ads for them "OUR BOYS ARE COMING HOME!" Have Fox news talk about it for three weeks. Show vague, stock footage of troops getting off of planes.

    When anyone objects, have Brit Hume prune-face them into submission. Have Bush haltingly explain on primetime that the MSM refuses to report the good news of the troops coming home. Dare the Democratic candidates to prove the troops are still over there. When they do, accuse them of wanting to perpetuate an unwinnable war for political gains. Ridicule any soldier's mother who wonders publicly where her child is and have Limbaugh smirk her into silence.

    They've mastered everything else in this war, why not just go a little bit further? Hell, McCain can run on putting the troops back and Tancredo can say he'll deploy them along the border.

  • Ashish George||

    Edna, I believe Sullum opposed the war from the beginning. He had the wisdom to realize that any proposed war (the war against "Islamofascism", the war to keep WMDs out of Saddam's hands, the war to re-make the Arab world) in Iraq that could be won--however you care to define victory--would be unjust. That's more than can be said of many libertarians, including some members of the Reason family.

  • ||

    We discussed this briefly in the other Huckabee thread: If your kid breaks something, you pay for it and leave. You don't let your kid continue to run around breaking things.

  • thoreau||

    I have to admit that "We broke it" is at least a more honest formulation than "Look! Purple fingers!"

    It's no surprise that we broke it, of course. Remember "flypaper theory"? "We're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here!" If you are using a country as a massive battlefield, don't be surprised if you break that country.

  • ||

    Stephen Colbert had the Paul/Huckabee exchange on the Report last night.

    "What Paul said thunk right in my headbone, but what Huckabee said felt right in my gut."

    "The South used to talk about honor a lot, and it gave them the strength to fight for about two years longer than they probably should have."

  • ||

    Take a look at where the twin towers once stood in NYC. That is why we are over there in Iraq and we have to stay the course and get all the Iraqis that are responsible for 9-11.

  • ||

    Bush has our military over in Iraq to fight for our freedoms. They hate us because of our freedom.

  • ||

    As each excuse for war becomes unspeakably ridiculous, a new excuse is put forward. Hasn't it become clear that those still supporting the war just like killing people?

  • ||

    That's a bit harsh, Warren.

    They just hate admitting they were wrong. The dead people are just a side effect of their honorablificness.

  • Fluffy||

    Edna -

    The difference between leaving Iraq because you think you can declare victory and say thanks, and leaving Iraq for the reasons Sullum lists, aren't really very material.

    In both instances the actual policy is "leave Iraq". The only difference between them is what you tell yourself as you pat yourself on the back.

    I don't have a problem with that, really. If you're cool with the US getting the hell out of Iraq, if you want to call it "the awesomest victory evah!" and hold an "awesomest victory part-ee" I promise to play along and attend your little shindig. Deal?

  • thoreau||

    Steven-

    You forgot to mention that a passenger jet is basically a giant aluminum tube, and that Saddam was trying to buy aluminum tubes. Do I need to tell you what the f**k you can do with an aluminum tube?

    ALUMINUM!

  • thoreau||

    Steven = Juanita?

  • ||

    The thing to do if you break something in a store, is you round up all the employees and customers in the back room and kill them; then you burn the building down to conceal the evidence.

    Happens all the time.

  • ||

    Huckabee's wisdom would lead us to the conclusion that we need a permanent child presence in the pottery store. Even though the children are tired, they have to stay all day and night to assure that they are honorable breaking as much stuff as they can. When they die, we'll bring in new children.

    Right now there are several aisles of unbroken goods, so we must surge....break as much as possible. We don't want the store owner coming to our house and breaking our own glasses and plates.

  • ||

    What gets little attention is exactly how substance free Huckabee's statement is.

    Whatever he wants to do, he wants to do it honorably. Oh, ok.

    Does that spinning the withdrawal with happy talk? Endless war? Accomplishing some goal? Who knows?

  • VM||

    Doktor T = AWESOME!!!!!!

  • JBinMO||

    "Yet those are the only two options, and there is little reason to think they will look any better in one year or five or 10."

    There is a third option, we could pull back and nuke em.

  • ||

    JBinMO,

    Preferably from orbit.

    Just to be sure.

  • JBinMO||

    Whatever it takes, but when we nuke em from orbit we need to do it honorbly.

  • ||

    Maybe we'll have six different guys press red different buttons, and only one of them actually fires the nuke? (Is there that fine a line between honor and spreading the blame?)

    By the way, who's the "mother" in Huckabee's scenario? What maternal figure is forcing us to pay up? Lynn Cheney? Dick in a flowery housecoat, telling America to stop crying or he'll give us something to cry about?

  • JBinMO||

    As far as making nuking Iraq honarable goes, we just need to pass a law (an excutive order would work) outlawing the existance of Al Queda.

    I don't know who "mother" is. Before this weekend I would have said Britney Spears, but now...

  • ||

    "We discussed this briefly in the other Huckabee thread: If your kid breaks something, you pay for it and leave. You don't let your kid continue to run around breaking things."

    I wish Ron Paul used that in the debate.

  • ||

    "many soldiers, who signed up to defend their country or perhaps their state now find themselves fighting in a country that they want nothing to do with."

    And most of the people in Iraq don't want us over there either.

  • Danny||

    The thing to do if you break something in a store, is you round up all the employees and customers in the back room and kill them; then you burn the building down to conceal the evidence.

    Happens all the time.


    And then tell the owners to rebuild it, assuming they weren't killed initially.

  • fyodor||

    The thing to do if you break something in a store is you keep breaking and breaking stuff until it's over the top hilarious, then you leave with your primo footage and make a highly grossing movie!!!

    Well, worked for Borat!!

  • ||

    Sullum,
    Would love to hear your opinion on why the war propagandists like Michael Young and Rauch are writing articles in Reason magazine. Who decides that? Does someone on the board insists taht Reason needs to provide "balance" on this subject and hire Brookings Institute or National Journal guys to write pro-war articles in order to represent the great pro-war libertarian position?

  • ||

    Danny,
    then you get the government to make a loan to the owners of the store, on the condition that the loan is to be used to hire Haliburton to rebuild the store for $10,000/ square foot.

    This policy is just good for America.

  • Dave Woycechowsky||

    The solution is to spin off the war. The Pentagon should make tours in Iraq voluntary, and contingent on voluntary donations by its supporters. If the conduct of the Iraq war was limited to what was possible with charitable donations and willing participants, then the matter would generate considerably less acrimony.

    "Defense" spending, as it is currently practiced in the US and has been since WWII should be funded entirely by progressive rate taxes on corporations.

    Big business should pay for what the US does in the name of defense.

    Then mistakes like Iraq will not happen.

  • ||

    If we must "buy it," I much prefer the Onion's solution: http://www.theonion.com/content/news/u_s_to_give_every_iraqi_3_544_91

  • JBinMO||

    I heard thar Halliburton was in the constitution under section 31.

  • edna||

    If you're cool with the US getting the hell out of Iraq, if you want to call it "the awesomest victory evah!" and hold an "awesomest victory part-ee" I promise to play along and attend your little shindig. Deal?

    if you can work out how to turn back the clock to (at worst) the purple finger days or (at best) the point of the effective and irreversible collapse of the baathist government, then drinks are on me.

  • ||

    The biggest problem with the Huckabee "pottery" analogy is that Iraq was *never* an intact piece of "pottery" to begin with. Here is my rewrite of the Huckabee analogy using actual history:

    The British took a bunch of random pottery shards from the rubble of the Ottoman Empire China Shop, glued them together haphazardly, and called the resulting monstrosity "Iraq." After the glue began to come undone a few decades later, Saddam Hussein secured the mess with a ballpeen hammer and some duct tape. The U.S. came in an removed the duct tape, but the remaining broken little bits of porcelain simply can't be reglued in the British fashion.

    Of course, historical understanding appears not to be a job requirement for the presidency...

  • ||

    Hasn't it become clear that those still supporting the war just like killing people?

    That may be overstating things, but only a little. I think that people really get off on war--the idea of war--and the warm feelings they get when they say "the troops." Oh, and having troops in the field assuages the fears that rule their dark souls.

    As far as the "you break it you bought it" rule, sometimes it is best to simply back out slowly. Sometimes the store owner prefers this, in order to prevent any further losses--like in "Borat."

    It has been amazing to watch the sliding scale of justifications for this debacle unfold, though, hasn't it? Did I say amazing? I meant depressing. "Victory" at this point has been reduced to "getting things to a state minimally adequate for the possibility of political change so that, in the best-case scenario, the threat posed by Iraq returns to something approaching only twice what it was before we invaded." It has come to this.

  • horsewithnonick||

    "We discussed this briefly in the other Huckabee thread: If your kid breaks something, you pay for it and leave. You don't let your kid continue to run around breaking things."

    I wish Ron Paul used that in the debate.


    I would have liked to have heard something along the lines of "When my mother took me into a store she told me not to mess around with things that didn't belong to me."

  • ||

    """It has been amazing to watch the sliding scale of justifications for this debacle unfold, though, hasn't it? Did I say amazing? I meant depressing."""

    Sliding scale? That's because the real reason would not be accepted. I believe I know the real reason. The purpose of invading Iraq was not to free it's citizens or to dispose of Saddam. It was to establish a forward operating base to launch attacks against Mid-East countries in the name of the war on terror. Iran may have been the real target all along. Before you disagree, the Bush admin has been hinting about this all along. They have claimed Iraq was necessary in the war on terror. They have said this is the beginning. Beginning of what? They knew Iraq wasn't a real threat when they were selling us that line. The plan is to have a large base, similar to what we had in Germany, in the Mid-East giving us the capability to wage war in short order anywhere in that region, such as Iran. I firmly belive that this administraion see it a necessary to wage a real war against terror. It is being predicted that strikes against Iran will begin within 8 to 10 months. Most likely before summer and on a new moon when the sky is darkest.

    I think it's a short-sighted plan that will reignite the cold war with Russia, and bring us closer to nuclear war than anything we've seen before, including the Cuban missile crisis. It will destroy decades of diplomacy with the current admin doesn't believe worked anyway. Not to mention the crisis within this country when we really start seeing the fruits of Bush's labors. You think America is getting tired of war now, wait till next year. Which brings about the question. Will an attack on the US happen between now and then to renew America's lost desire for war? I'm starting to think that all this bickering about Iraq, which the Bush admin seems to enjoy, is more about keeping everybody's mind away from the reality. Bush plans to have this in full swing before the next election. This will prevent the next President from not engaging so to speak. Bush is placing a big can of worms on the desk in the oval office for the next Prez. It will be so big that the new Prez will have to follow it through.


    If you have draft age kids, you better spend time with them now.

    Man, I really hope I'm wrong.

  • ||

    One of the above lines should have said

    It will destroy decades of diplomacy which the current admin doesn't believe worked anyway.

  • ||

    TrickyVic, I have no doubt that the Administration planned all along to have permanent bases in "The New Iraq." However, I think you do far too much assuming about what various people are thinking and about the potential consequences thereof.

    I don't know if you are wrong or right, but to assume such an extended series of motivations is just this side of moonbattery.

    Why not just take the Bush folks at their word? They blundered into Iraq thinking we'd be welcomed as liberators, and that everybody else in the Middle East would suddenly snap out of their 3,000-year-old fog and make the big leap to American Democracy. To me, that level of naivete is far more disturbing from our highest officials than assuming they had some kind of grand, secret plan.

  • ||

    TrickyVic, I think some people have said the same thing both here and on other sites. What I never understood is why the US needs a forward base in Iraq when you have Diego Garcia and aircraft carrier groups.

  • ||

    Vic, I suspect that the invasion of Iraq was the result of a confluence of factors, most of which could be placed under the heading of "desire for American hegemony in the Middle East." There were some in the administration who felt that a democratic nation in the M.E. would have positive effects for the region saw Iraq as the best candidate for conversion; some who saw Saddam as an unknown that should be neutralized (for good) towards a more predictable terrorism situation (great job on that one, eh?); some who have wanted to attack Iraq since God knows when for God knows why (perhaps some who felt the job was never finished the first time 'round); some who saw American control of the Iraqi oil supply as an important goal; and some (nutjobs) who really believed that Saddam had something to do with 9/11 and who mistook cattle watering holes for WMD sites (e.g. Dick Cheney).

    None of these considerations justify a full-scale invasion and occupation of another sovereign nation, so we got the WMD lies and the "ties to Al Qaeda" lies, and the liberation ruse. When reality elbowed its way into these mirages, we saw the pathetic downgrading of justifications until here today we find ourselves defining "victory" as "patching together that which we ourselves destroyed."

    Inspiring, ain't it?

  • ||

    "Defense" spending, as it is currently practiced in the US and has been since WWII should be funded entirely by progressive rate taxes on corporations."

    "Big business should pay for what the US does in the name of defense."

    "Then mistakes like Iraq will not happen."

    And it would also help if their kids were drafted.

  • ||

    "I would have liked to have heard something along the lines of "When my mother took me into a store she told me not to mess around with things that didn't belong to me."

    That's even better.

  • ||

    TrickyVic, I agree with you that the neocons wanted Iraq as a new staging point for troops. I believe it has alot to do with protecting Israel.

    If we do attack Iran, which we probably will, why will Russia attack us?

  • ||

    """Why not just take the Bush folks at their word?"""

    Which word would that be? I've head a few. Bush has proven to use deception as a tool. He did so with Rummy's resignation, amongst other things including evidence of WMD. Bush outright lied about Rummy for political ends. So why on earth would you ask me to take a deceptive man at his word? Sure Bush thought we would be greeted as a liberator and he was right, but for what, a day, a week? He also believes that the liberatees would accept a permanent U.S. base. I offer nothing new with that one. He is already gearing up the rhetoric for an excuse to attack Iran.

    """ but to assume such an extended series of motivations is just this side of moonbattery.
    ""

    There is only one motivation I am extending. It is to defeat terrorism, and all countries that support it. If you think that is moonbattery, you haven't been listening to this administration. Everything else is an extension of that motivation or a consequence thereof. Time will be the judge if it's moonbattery. If I'm right, it's not moonbattery at all.

    ""...about the potential consequences thereof.""

    Maybe. The said consequences are my guesses, but I don't make those guesses lightly. There are a fair amount of ifs involved. Will Iran try to send troops into Iraq? Will Russia defend Iran? How will the Saudis, Egyptians, and the Iraqis themselves react? There are many in Iraq, mostly in the south, which supports Iran. Will they fight us? If we are not winning will we use nukes?

    We are going to Iran, it's pretty much a done deal. So far, to my knowledge, it's an aerial campaign. But, anyone who's severed knows it has its limits. Clinton's air campaign in Yugoslavia had a ground force element. I think Bush maybe taking a page from Clinton, yet forgetting what role the UN played on the ground. If Bush thinks he can bomb Iran and that will be the end of it, he's grossly overestimating. But he did that with Iraq and he doesn'


    ""US needs a forward base in Iraq when you have Diego Garcia and aircraft carrier groups."""

    Diego Garcia is not big enough.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diego_Garcia
    Aircraft carriers don't carry an army. Why did we need to put troops in Germany in WWII when England was nearby?

    ""Inspiring, ain't it?""

    No kidding. But get ready for the next phase. I expect it to be equally inspiring.


    """If we do attack Iran, which we probably will, why will Russia attack us?"""

    I'm not saying they will. That would depend if they decide to protect Iran from further destruction. Or, they may supply weapons to Iran during the conflict. Since the "reason" we are attacking Iran is because they are supplying our enemy in Iraq, it would be logical for Russia to think we will attack them for the same. At the very least, we may attack Russians inside Iran. Those are possibilities. I do think it will at least reignite the cold war.

    If we get bogged down in Iran and Iraq, I believe we will use first strike nukes. The story about nukes accidently on the B52 is BS. I'm not sure exactly how. Either the public is being "soften" or tested on the idea, or they were intentionally moving them. Nukes are too well secured for mistakes. They are not stored with convetionals so you can't mistakenly grab one for the other. If they meant to grab a dummy nuke, which could be stored in the same area, that may be a little different but begs the question of why is a bomber practicing flying with dummy nukes? If we strike first with nukes, I expect most of the world to turn against us and Russia may feel obligated under the MAD doctrine to launch a counterstrike. I don't know, and I really, really hope I'm wrong about that, but it is a possibility to consider.

  • ||

    "Aircraft carriers don't carry an army."

    Aircraft carriers project power. Armies project, as we see in Iraq, vacuums of power.

  • edna||

    I agree with you that the neocons wanted Iraq as a new staging point for troops. I believe it has alot to do with protecting Israel.

    very tricky! a more conventional thinker would reason, "if i want to protect israel militarily, i could station my troops in a nearby friendly country like... israel."

  • ||

    Lamar, I don't think so. Armies, historically, instill power. Well, when used in war and not a policing action which currently is our main mission in Iraq. Besides, the vaccuum of power in Iraq has more to do with decisions made by Paul Bremmer than our military.

    Edna, not saying I agree with Jake but to protect X from Y, standing between them is a common method.

  • ||

    The bases in Iraq were supposed to allow us to stop stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, which is provocative, as evidenced by bin Laden's statements.

    I used to read the above sentiment in National Review articles laying out the case for the Iraq War. Amazingly enough, the writers would put that exact same argument in a piece in which they also accused Iraq War opponents of appeasing terrorists!

  • Dave||

    The point of offensive war is taking by breaking.

  • Steve||

    "King George pushed Humpty Dumpmty and all the king's asses and all the king's men cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again."

  • ||

    "Lamar, I don't think so. Armies, historically, instill power."

    Historically is the key word. With the rise of police actions, peacekeeping and 'limited war' this is no longer the case.

    Let's not forget that armies historically faced uniformed opponents with definable goals.

  • ||

    Historically is the key word. With the rise of police actions, peacekeeping and 'limited war' this is no longer the case.

    Those are self-imposed limitations, not inevitable ones.

  • ||

    What did we "break"? Certainly not "Iraq," -- whatever anyone means by that label. That ex-Ottoman pashlik was created abroad, was kept alive for about as long as Illyria,was run (into the ground) by ideologies pilfered from various external -- i.e. non-Arab and non-Muslim -- sources, and held together by blood.
    Perhaps the citizens should have "broken" it themselves long ago, as for example Romanians "broke" Ceausescu's paragon of earthly hell, and as North Koreans should also "break" Kimmie's machine.

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