"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.