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Will the Pottery Barn Rule Save Assad?

The same vague aloofness that has served Barack Obama well at various points in his political career does not make Jay Carney’s job any easier. The White House press secretary must field questions from the media to explain the president’s position on a host of issues almost daily. When the administration’s policy is hazy, secretive, or to be determined, as is often the case, Carney stammers through his press briefing with a defeated, resigned series of non-answers.

Such is the case with the apparently imminent military attack on Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. After the West could no longer ignore the use of chemical weapons, the administration sent Secretary of State John Kerry out yesterday to make a statement that danced around the subject of a military response. He then took no questions and left. But the message came through clearly enough that it is now taken for granted that action will be taken.

Carney naturally took questions on the subject today, and when pressed for specifics, he gave an answer that became the focus of several news agencies’ write-ups of the briefing: “It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change.” The goal of the (presumed) strikes will not be to take out Bashar al-Assad.

The follow-up question, which elicited no further explanation, was: Why not? To elaborate: it is the opinion of the government of the United States that Assad should no longer be in control of the country, and the U.S. may now strike at Assad’s regime–but doesn’t want to depose him. That may sound incongruous, but the strange truth is that the president most likely does not want to take out Assad–and it’s not because Obama doesn’t actually want Assad out.

The answer to that question has a lot to do with an interesting debate among commentators on the left about the lessons and legacy of the Iraq war. Matt Yglesias argued that a humanitarian intervention should be done through explicitly humanitarian (that is, non-military) means. Jonathan Chait responded that the left would do well to stop assuming every military intervention is Iraq all over again–what about the first Gulf war or the Balkans?

Yglesias questions the idea that the Libyan intervention succeeded, and Chait disagrees. But it’s Chait’s description of Libyan success that helps explain why President Obama may not want to be responsible for ending Assad’s rule directly. Here’s Chait:

The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against. It’s telling that, rather than arguing that the overall costs exceeded the benefits, opponents are resorting to listing any bad things that have happened since.

Chait isn’t arguing that the “bad things that have happened since” didn’t actually happen or aren’t really bad. He’s saying the mission had nothing to do with preventing the descent into violent anarchy and the destabilizing spread of Islamist violence that followed the intervention. Gaddafi’s dead. Mission accomplished.

But it’s not nearly so easy for a president to make that case. It can be simultaneously true that the narrowly defined mission in Libya succeeded and that what followed was disastrous. The reason it elicits comparisons to Iraq is because of Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule” regarding foreign intervention: “You break it, you own it.”

Western military action in Libya decapitated the Gaddafi regime, raising the specter of the Pottery Barn rule. It’s true that the administration made no promises to stay and nation-build there. But President Obama learned with the fatal attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi that he could not so easily walk away from Libya by simply saying that he held up his end of the bargain.

The Pottery Barn rule is why Iraq looms over the various humanitarian disasters created by the Arab Spring, tempting American intervention. And the “bad things that have happened since” Gaddafi’s toppling are why Libya is being raised as a cautionary tale for intervention in Syria. If Obama’s directed action takes out Assad, and that leaves a chaotic vacuum that results in more death, destruction, and the suffering of innocents, it won’t be so simple to respond to the ensuing outcry with a protestation that all he promised to do was send a message.



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