“You break it, you own it.” So goes the “Pottery Barn rule” that Colin Powell invoked in his last-ditch attempts to dissuade President Bush from invading Iraq. “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.”
In the end, of course, Powell caved to Bush’s geopolitical whims, played the good soldier, and did as much as anyone to lie to the world and sell the case for invasion—an invasion driven by blind ideology, wishful thinking, and a feckless refusal to consider the consequences. Stupefyingly, the administration maintains that attitude to this day—refusing, for example, to address the plight of 2 million refugees because, you see, they’ll all go home soon to a pacified Iraq.
Yet it’s not just the administration that has its head in the sand; to varying degrees, we all do. For those of us who argued against invading, it is tempting to simply demand an end to “Bush’s War” and wash our hands of it. But as General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told us, “Your conscience is not clean just because you’re a peace demonstrator.” In other words, just because you weren’t in favor of going in doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for what happens when we pull out.
And pull out we will—if only because the military can’t sustain current troop levels. Not that you’d know it from listening to the debate in Washington, with its farcical focus on timetables and surges and benchmarks. Take the grand unveiling of the Petraeus report, a PR blitz reminiscent of prewar opinion orchestration. First, Brookings Institution scholars Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon went on a Potemkin tour of Iraq and dutifully wrote an op-ed called “A War We Just Might Win.” Only two qualifiers? No matter, the Washington commentariat took the cue and hastily fell in line. As did the media, some of which even bought Dick Cheney’s canard that these two were “critics of the war.” (Actually, as Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald forced O’Hanlon to acknowledge, “I was a supporter.”) By the time General David Petraeus presented himself to Congress—his “report” long since leaked—the political theater had devolved into bad summer stock. General Petraeus was the very model of a modern major general; the Democratic candidates formed a spectral chorus; MoveOn played to type as the shrill left. And, most gratingly, Bush reprised his 2003 role: flinty-eyed, elbows on podium, warning of Al Qaeda evildoers on the one hand and genocide on the other.
Now, as then, this was a nice bit of political calculation designed to reconstitute the pro-invasion coalition of the worried, the gung-ho, and the humanitarian interventionists. True, Bush wasn’t completely lying. Al Qaeda in Iraq is a threat—one entirely of Bush’s making, but a threat nonetheless. (See: Al Qaeda in Iraq: How Dangerous Is It?) And there’s the very real chance that withdrawal will precipitate more, perhaps even apocalyptic, violence. (See: Four Post-Occupation Scenarios)
There are no good options in Iraq, but the options narrow to the horrific the longer our leaders dawdle. Bush seems content—whether out of delusional optimism or cynical “strategery”—to run out the clock and stick the next administration with this mess; only 5 percent of Americans expect him to do otherwise. And the Democrats are playing the other side of the same game—content to let the GOP go down with its man.
So what is to be done? First and foremost, anyone running for or holding national office must be forced to answer these questions: What’s your schedule for withdrawal, and what consequences do you foresee? Which comes first—withdrawal, a functioning Iraqi government, or a solid international peacekeeping force? What concessions would you make to get Iraq’s neighbors to help? What degree of bloodshed are you prepared to stand by and watch?
We put such questions to five dozen military men, think-tankers, peace activists, academics, and politicians. Some of their responses follow, and we’ll post the full interviews online, along with a list of those who refused to respond—including the architects of the war, leading presidential candidates, and the congressional leadership. Some, it should be noted, begged off because they were taking a summer break, even as Iraqi politicians were being criticized for doing the same. We hope that if we can’t force them to reckon with reality, you can. As General Zinni notes, “the government is us. We made promises and commitments. The administration proposed the war; Congress—the voice of the people—authorized it; we are responsible for it. We can’t claim, ‘I didn’t vote for him in the first place’ or ‘I changed my mind.’ There has to be some sort of obligation that falls to us as a society for what our government does in our name.”
Yes, Bush, a leader with all the impulse control of a petulant three-year-old, “broke” Iraq. But we own it now. Time to get ready with the apology, the checkbook, and whatever else is required.