Iraq and the Pottery Barn rule

Screenshot of ISIS fighters from an ISIS video.
ISIS fighters (Screenshot from an ISIS video)

No sooner did the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) offensive in Iraq hit the headlines than a particular song refrain popped into my head: “You break it, you pay for it.” It was a ferocious earworm that I couldn’t identify and cannot get rid of. (I finally tracked it down. It’s from a song “You Break It” sung by Diana Dewitt; it was the only vocal on a 1989 John Tesh album, “Garden City.”) It’s a disturbing if simplistic summation of what’s happening in Iraq.

Most adults likely remember the saying as “You break it, you own it,” also known as the Pottery Barn rule. The principle was first cited by Gen. Colin Powell when, referring to the pending Iraq invasion in 2002, he warned Pres. George W. 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.’

Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward later wrote that Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage referred to it privately as the Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.”

In any case, the song lyric was the first thing I thought of when I heard about the ISIS attacks. At the same time, my seething resentment of George W. Bush erupted again.

Heartbreaking. Frustrating. Infuriating. Bush broke it. By the time we got out, he was no longer in office and, conveniently, no longer responsible. And now it seems we may get sucked back in. Not because we have any business messing in Middle East politics, because we don’t, but because we’re stuck with a moral commitment to the country we broke (even though the troops we trained fled their posts and left their American-made equipment to ISIS) and because we have a huge investment there in blood and treasure. Neither is reason enough for us to go back into Iraq, but our government may not see it that way.

“Everything you do comes back on you.
You break it, you pay for it”

~ Diana Dewitt, “You Break It”

11 thoughts on “Iraq and the Pottery Barn rule

  1. I’m sorry PT, as someone that finally collapsed after 35 years in a failed marriage, the “huge investment in blood and treasure” argument just doesn’t wash with me. Despite the fantasies my compulsion to “fix” things brings to mind when I think of all those poor people, I have to force myself to ask how much MORE blood and treasure are we willing to invest to go back in? :/

    1. Oh, make no mistake, it doesn’t wash with me either. Maybe I didn’t make that clear. But I can certainly see it as a reason our government might use to go back in. We’ve got no business going back in there, IMHO. It’s cost us too much already.

  2. That President Obama said, “We can’t do it for them” offers some hope we’ll resist pressures to go back in there. Let us hope we don’t return in any substantial way to compound one big mistake with another. I know, that’s a lot to hope for, but someday. . .

    1. I wish he’d say that for the entire Middle East. Most of the rest of the world, for that matter. We can’t do it for them, any of them, and we should stop trying. More than enough problems to fix right here at home.

  3. It didn’t work in Korea, Vietnam…..
    Money, equipment, training – and scores of our fine young soldiers wounded and maimed. For what?
    Seems you can’t just hand people the government you think they should have – they must want it and fight for it on their own. It may not happen immediately, but if they want it badly enough, maybe someday…
    We cannot solve the problems everywhere…but could be an example…one that takes care of it’s OWN people, fixes problems here, and is always attempting to improve life here and move civilization forward – here.
    Drives me nuts. Get US citizens and troops out of Bagdad – no good coming of this.
    (and we don’t need the oil and gas from the Middle East. That’s utter nonsense – anyone in the industry knows…just government excuses for what they want to do.)
    Email your elected officials.

... and that's my two cents