Wednesday, April 05, 2006


The Pottery Barn Rule revisited

In September I referred to the mythic Pottery Barn rule attributed to NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In his book Plan of Attack Bob Woodward claimed that Colin Powell had warned Bush of this "rule" as plans were being made for the invasion of Iraq. In my own writing I presented the rule in a form I thought was the most sensible construction: "You break it, you pay for it."1 But that is not what Friedman actually said. His formulation was "You break it, you own it." And it looks as if he meant it.

Last Thursday Friedman was interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air. Here's where I spewed my coffee—

Terry Gross: President Bush sent a message to the Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari that Bush doesn't want al-Jaafari to remain the Prime Minister in the next government. Is that an appropriate kind of message for the President to be sending?

Tom Friedman: Well, you know, I'm of two minds about that, and I don't know exactly what message the President sent. But we have equity there. You know, over 2000 Americans have died there. Thousands more have been wounded. We've spent billions of dollars. And we do have a right to say that this guy is completely inept at running the Iraqi government as proven by the last two years.2 And if he's only in place there because a militia-leading thug name Muqtada Sadr wants him to be there, well then, excuse me, we're going to let you know that. [my transcription]

Yes, according to Friedman, thanks to the invasion and the concomitant loss of American lives and money we now have at least partial ownership of Iraq per our "investment."3 And like any stockholder we have the right to tell management what we think. Actually it appears that the American share of equity is so great that the U.S. may actually tell management—the Iraqi government, that is—what to do.

Ordinarily I wouldn't bother you with the blatherings of Thomas Friedman, because there is no reason I know of that anyone should care what he thinks. But then I read the text of the Condi Rice–Jack Straw press conference held in Baghdad this Monday, and there was that equity theme again—

Straw: .... We have emphasized, Secretary Rice and myself, time and again that who becomes nominated and then elected to these leadership positions, including the prime minister, is a matter for sovereign decisions by the sovereign parliament, the Council of Representatives of Iraq; but the international community, particularly the United States, whose forces have lost so many brave men and women, and the United Kingdom a similar situation relative to the strength of our forces, that we are entitled to say that whilst it's up to you, the Iraqis, to decide who should fulfill these positions, somebody has to fill these positions and fill them quickly....

Rice: .... [W]e came here principally to underscore the importance of bringing to a close the negotiations on the formation of a government, the appointment of the most important positions, those who will govern and lead Iraq....

... And indeed the international partners, particularly the United States and Great Britain ..., have a deep desire and I think a right to expect that this process will keep moving forward, because it is after all the political process that will disable those who wish to engage in violence against the Iraqi people.

All this was accompanied by a great deal of ass-kissing of Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the Shias, and a slew of denials that Rice and Straw were in Baghdad to throw their weight around. Here Condi lays out her specifications for the next prime minister—

QUESTION: Al-Iraqiya. A lot of news that says that you support this certain candidate and refuse other candidate. Yesterday some ... read from the signs ... on the face of Secretary Rice, that you were much happier with Adil Abd al-Mahdi than you were with Al-Jafari. Was this truth? Is this the truth that you are supporting one and not the other?

SECRETARY RICE: You know, I would caution against trying to read my facial expressions.... It is not my responsibility or the responsibility of Secretary Straw to determine who is going to be the prime minister of Iraq; that can only be determined by Iraqis. We know that the largest voting bloc out of the democratic process [the Shias of the United Islamic Alliance] will nominate that person; that is also only fair in a process like this. But the only question that we have had is how this gets done now.... and in order to do that, you have to have a prime minister named.... It needs to be a strong leader, who's a unifying force and someone who can bring stability and meet the challenges that face the Iraqi people, but it is not our job to say who that person is going to be.

Not us. No, really!

MR. MCCORMACK: Is there an Iraqi journalist?

SECRETARY RICE: I think this woman, this woman all the way in the back.

QUESTION (Via interpreter): Don’t you think that this an interference in the Iraqi affair in determining its fate, then especially that Iraq is supposed to be sovereign and this is against the principles of democracy?

SECRETARY RICE: Okay. The question was whether or not this is interference in Iraqi affairs. Iraq is sovereign. And is it also -- is it democratic to do this, I guess, is the way to put it.

First of all, we've been very clear that Iraq is indeed sovereign....

.... But ... there must be — and soon — responsible leaders in those positions is something that I think the international community has a right to expect.

Jack Straw then reminds again of the joint U.S.–British purchase—

FOREIGN SECRETARY STRAW: And could I just underline ... that we will recognize anybody who emerges democratically as the prime minister and vice president, president, and other leaders, whether it's Mr. A, Mr. B, Mr. C. But please, the Americans have lost over 2,000 people. We've lost over 100. There are 140,000 overseas troops here, helping to keep the peace in Iraq and billions -- billions -- of United States dollars, hundreds of millions of British pound sterlings have come into this country. We do have, I think, a right to say that we've got to be able to deal with Mr. A or Mr. B or Mr. C. We can't deal with Mr. Nobody. And that's a problem, okay.

This gave Condi an opportunity for one of those "lighter" moments—

SECRETARY RICE: Jack, I'm sure we'd be all right with Miss A, B or C, too, right? (Laughter.)

It appears that the equity-ownership of Iraq is a theme now being emphasized by the Administration, abetted by war cheerleaders such as Friedman—always presented of course with some sort of denial of the implications. But it seems to me that the time has come to sell our shares.

Related posts
Lessons in sovereignty - Part I (9/19/05)
No. Not some troops; all troops (9/25/05)


1This was also the title of an article from December 2004 by Naomi Klein for The Nation [back]

2This doesn't entirely make sense. Al-Jaafari has only been Prime Minister since April 7 of last year.

But if a mere year or two of ineptness justifies the overthrow of al-Jaafari, what are we to do about George Bush, who has been inept in running the American government now going on six years? [back]

3Invasions appear to be such a wonderfully efficient method of acquiring equity. I imagine a number of nations would like to follow suit, though I thought the practice had more or less been frowned upon since the end of the British Raj. [back]

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