The Pottery Barn Rule: Syria Edition

Colin Powell on his famous “you break it, you own it” view of war, and how it’s nice to have a doctrine named after you.

Max Taylor

“I don’t like Mr. Assad. I’ve worked with him—tried to work with him, I should say,” Colin Powell, former secretary of state to the Bush administration, said Wednesday at the Washington Ideas Forum. “And he is a pathological liar. He’s a devil. I’d like to see him leave.”

It’s a version of the message the Obama administration maintains, in modified form, since the president declared four years ago that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” But Powell has experience with what can happen when dictators are deposed. “While we’re all hoping he will go away, let’s think through—once again, my old Pottery Barn rule—what comes after him?” Powell said. “Do we know what’ll happen when Assad eventually does step down, if he steps down either voluntarily or he’s pushed out? ... So we ought to be very careful before we get too deeply involved in his removal.”

Powell’s Pottery Barn rule—“you break it, you own it”—is one of the iconic rhetorical flourishes of the Iraq War era, representing warnings ignored and unintended consequences unleashed. It turns out that the Pottery Barn rule is neither Powell’s nor Pottery Barn’s, as the following exchange with interviewer Walter Isaacson made clear:

Isaacson: With all due respect to Pottery Barn, they say you don’t have to really buy—

Powell: You’re responsible for the Pottery Barn rule. I didn’t say it, you said it.

(The earliest use of the phrase I can find attributed to Powell in the press is in April, 2004 reviews of Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack.)

Isaacson: Right. Well, this was a long time ago.

Powell: What I was saying is, if you get yourself involved—if you break a government, if you cause it to come down, by invading or other means, remember that you are now the government. You have a responsibility to take care of the people of that country.

Isaacson: And it got labeled the Pottery Barn rule.

Powell: It’s not a bad—Pottery Barn the company, after fussing, got a heck of a lot of advertising mileage out of that saying.

The underlying sentiment, too, continues to get mileage.

Isaacson: So you think the administration may be making a mistake by emphasizing “Assad must go” as a priority?

Powell: I don’t see anything wrong with that. And I think, in recent days, the administration has been modifying their language a little bit. They’re saying “Well, you know, maybe not today. And we’ll figure out a way. And we’ll work with our friends and allies.” So I think he will eventually go. But I think you have to be extremely careful. We thought we knew what would happen in Libya. We thought we knew what would happen in Egypt. We thought we knew what would happen in Iraq, and we guessed wrong. In each one of these countries the thing we have to consider is that there is some structure … that’s holding the society together. And as we learned, especially in Libya, when you remove the top and the whole thing falls apart, there’s nothing underneath it you get chaos.

As far as the Powell Doctrine—the notion that, in Powell’s own description of it, “when you start out something, make sure you have enough force in place to have a decisive outcome”—he maintained that in Iraq the U.S. had a decisive outcome getting to Baghdad. “But we forgot that the war wasn’t over.”

The doctrine, too, was to some extent a press invention—Powell recalled seeing the idea called a “doctrine” in The Washington Post. “It’s not an Army doctrine. It’s just something I made up one day.”