It is said that I used the “Pottery Barn rule.” I never did it; [Thomas] Friedman did it … But what I did say … [is that] once you break it, you are going to own it, and we’re going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us. And it’s going to suck up a good 40 to 50 percent of the Army for years.
Wikipedia concurs with Powell, in attributing the phrase to Thomas L. Friedman (in a February 2003 column for the New York Times). Those with a diligent sense for historical detail might be able to accurately trace its spread amongst journalists and foreign policy officials, including Bob Woodward, Richard Armitage, and John Kerry. Regardless of such specifics, it captures the spirit of grand strategy during the Nullities, and explains why the US military is no longer of use for anything.
In its rational usage, the military is a machine for the production of negative incentives. It is designed to hurt people and break things, with the understanding that in its optimal — deterrent and intimidatory — function, the actual exercise of these capabilities will not be necessary. When considered from a Clausewitzean perspective, as a policy instrument, usable military power is directly proportional to a credible threat of punishment. It sets boundaries to the behavior of (rational) potential antagonists, by projecting the probability of extreme negative outcomes if diplomatically-determined triggers are activated — or ‘red lines’ crossed.
Frederick the Great said “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments” because there can be no discussion of political limits among sovereigns unless menace gives them meaning. “I’d really rather you didn’t do that” has no ‘really’ about it, unless a threat lurks at the edge of the stage (visible, but reserved). It’s a polite belch, at best. Positive incentives presuppose the boundaries set by negative incentives — there can be no bargaining over that which can be demanded without cost. Thus the words of the diplomat are refinements of a message that military capability crafts in its essentials, either in the first derivative (balance of power between armed alliances), or the second (the ‘internal’ security economy of coalitions). The rest is empty ceremony.
Imperialism tends to the radical degeneration of diplomatic reason, because it dissolves borders, systematically effacing the ‘foreign’ sphere. When this process has developed to the point that foreign and domestic policy are no longer distinguishable, the Pottery Barn Rule takes over. ‘Mission creep’ is the operational symptom of something deeper: the geostrategic abolition of proprietary boundaries, of a kind that allow for the possibility of restricted sympathies, or the recognition of alien interests. The mature empire cannot threaten anything or anybody without immediately threatening itself. Hence its profound alignment with universal moral ideologies, whose particular selves gush unimpeded into the world soul.
When, in the early years of the new millennium, President ‘Godzilla’ Dubya Bush unleashed Operation Pottery Barnstorm on various societies loosely associated with the wreckage of the New York skyline, it was understood from the beginning that the populations on the receiving end were already honorary New Yorkers, absent from the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001 only by insignificant sociological coincidence. This ‘fact’ was an explicit justification for the US response, which expressed outrage at the victimization of a random sample of the world’s population by ‘criminals’ so backward they didn’t realize they were only hurting themselves. America’s ruling elite, in contrast, had attained this realization definitively enough to articulate it, for domestic = international consumption, as the Pottery Barn Rule.
Once the Pottery Barn Rule becomes authoritative, the military is rationally unusable. It’s obvious why. Imagine a night-club bouncer saying, “Clear out of here, or I’m going to thrash you within an inch of your life – of course, I promise to take full responsibility for all the damage you incur from this righteous beating, covering all medical expenses, compensating you for loss of earnings, and negotiating in good faith to make reparation for all reasonable claims of emotional distress …” This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you. For the global administrative class, this is a truly beautiful illustration of evolved consciousness. Ordinary Americans, including the military, are less spiritually captivated by the development.
In the Pottery Break Age, there are no threats that do not revert to masochistic acts of solidarity. A decision to bomb or invade X now means It’s time for us to share X’s pain. Unsurprisingly — except amongst a weird sub-species of radically bellicose goofy idealist — this type of imperial-altruistic enterprise is proving a tough sell.
Let’s take on the role of insurer for the Pottery Barn, and then trash the place hard (for the common good).
If Congress signs on for this, it will be one more sign that America’s political class has wandered off into another world — or perhaps just The World® — leaving the country’s once-distinguishable neo-native population behind.
ADDED: Angelo M. Codevilla: “Some three fourths of Americans oppose making war on Syria. Hence the Republican leadership class’ reflexive advocacy of entry into Syria’s civil war is cutting one of the few remaining ties that bind it to ordinary Americans.” (via)
ADDED: James Taranto: “As Congress returns and prepares to take up President Obama’s request for an authorization to use military force in Syria, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, tries to reassure queasy Republicans that “yes” is not only the right vote but the expedient one … This seems to us a very bad misreading of the political environment.” (Even Kristol starts to lose it after Kerry makes the “unbelievably small” promise.)