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 the US, 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 spokes-person recently told a journalist.
Never mind that. The imaginary policy of a store selling US$80 corkscrews continues to be the favored 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," Kristof wrote.
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 neighborhoods.
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 Shiite 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 Fallujah 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