In advance of the Iraq War, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and Secretary of State Colin Powell both referred to what is commonly known as the Pottery Barn rule: you break it; you buy it. Of course this is not true for most retail outlets, not even Pottery Barn. Customers break things all the time, and the store writes it off as a loss. However, when it comes to American military involvement in Iraq, the quote cannot be true. The United States did break Iraq, but we cannot buy it. We do not, cannot, and ought not own it. Iraq belongs to the Iraqi people and what becomes of the country is their responsibility alone.
In the past few days a militant Islamic group – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a.k.a. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an offshoot of al Qaeda– has captured several cities in Iraq and threatens Baghdad. The government of Nouri al Maliki has asked for American military aid in the form of air strikes and drone strikes. The public discourse in the United States today centers on whether President Obama tried hard enough to get a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq that would have allowed an American military presence of several thousand warriors. They also say that the president has not been forceful enough in the Syrian civil war. Some Republican legislators are calling for military action, some Democrats say they see no reason to return to Iraq in any military way.
I say and say again, the United States ought to stay out of both the conflict in Syria and in Iraq. In his recent remarks at West Point, President Obama spoke of providing money to a regional entity that would give more aid to Syrian rebels. This would keep US military personnel out of the fight. The regional approach is a just peace principle. However, the United States does not need to send one more dollar or shed one more drop of American blood in either Iraq or Syria. The people who live in that neighborhood ought to solve their own problems because no matter how long an American force stays in the region, we are not at home. (I do support continued humanitarian aid for refugees.)
In the Pottery Barn analogy, if a customer breaks a piece of pottery, she can pay for it, put the piece in a bag and bring the pieces home. She can do what she wants with them. She may want to glue them back together, or use them in a piece of art work or put them in the bottom of another pot and repot a plant over the broken pieces. She may choose to throw the pieces away. Such is not the case with a country. We are not going to bring the broken pieces of Iraq home to the United States. We do not own the country. We cannot decide what to do next.
Further, we ought not. This is a post-colonial moment. Let us never forget that the Iraqi people are not our children. They are adults able to make adult decisions and then live with the consequences of those decisions. Some observers of the situation say that the United States withdrawal from Iraq was premature because without the presence of US generals, al Maliki, a Shiite, would not share power with Sunnis, and worse, he would oppress them. It is not the function of the US military to babysit a nation’s leader. Maliki made bad decisions, now he and his people must face the consequences.
Some commentators say that unless the US reengages militarily that the country will disintegrate into three separate countries. Perhaps, but again, it is their decision to make. When we consider the history of Iraq, before the British Mandate, before the world knew there was oil underneath the ground, before the oil was an important strategic commodity, before the Ottoman Empire, before Islam itself, Persians, Assyrians and Arabs have been fighting over this territory and control of trade routes. Tribal leaders have taken sides in these conflicts. After World War II and after the British left, there have been a series of internecine wars. After the rise of the Ba’ath party, Saddam Hussein took control of the party and held the country together with an iron fist. We will never know whether or not internal forces could have removed him from power.
Some people who urge American reengagement in Iraq say that it is necessary because if the country falls to ISIS/ISIL that it will become a base for terrorist attacks against the United States. Terrorist organizations by their nature do not need any particular country to plan a terrorist attack. The lesson of 9/11 is that the planning for that attack took place in several countries, including the United States. Some people say that the success of ISIS/ISIL in Iraq will destabilize the entire region. The entire region is already unstable, and will probably remain so for many years to come. Justice– democratic, distributive justice– stabilizes nations and regions, not the extreme violence of war. Some say that if the United States does not help at this moment, we leave a vacuum for Iran to fill. I say If Iran wants to hemorrhage blood and treasure fighting in both Iraq and Syria, then let it. It will look up one day and find itself in the same place as the United States is now, exhausted and weak at home because of perpetual war.
If the US were to intervene now, this would put us in the unique position of at once fighting on the side of Iran in Iraq, and working against it in Syria. Now, the ISIS/ISIL is using American money it stole from a bank to finance its fighting and using American military hardware abandoned by Iraqis who refuse to fight them. We are arming and financing a terrorist organization. This makes no sense.
The American people have had enough war. If our leaders cannot see this, or if they think we can be talked into another war by saying that the terrorists are coming to get us, then it is our duty to correct this thinking at the ballot box.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.