Former General and Secretary of State Colin Powell explained his intended meaning when he said what was boiled down to Powell’s Pottery Barn Rule of foreign policy: You break it; you own it. “What I was saying is,” Powell clarified, “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.”
Yes, but for how long? Which is not really the right question, because the answer can’t be measured just by the passage of time. The answer of when to exit a conflict zone, when to drop responsibility for a people, should be defined by conditions on the ground. So, the better question is “Until when, until what has been accomplished?”
In Iraq, misjudgments of conditions on the ground led the United States twice to declare victory pre-maturely — most famously in President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech and more quietly in December 2011 when President Barack Obama brought the last U.S. combat forces, other than trainers and a few special ops units, home.
By 2014 ISIS had seized almost one-third of the country and had proved that both the Iraqi government which asked the U.S. troops to leave and President Obama who agreed, were wrong in thinking the war in Iraq was over, that the U.S.-backed government had won, and that it could — in Colin Powell’s phrase, “take care of the people” of Iraq.
So U.S. forces returned to Iraq, some boots on the ground, but more important American attackers from the air, and American technology and the hardware that enabled the Iraqi Army to defeat ISIS with stand-off firepower. When it comes to breaking things — wrecking cites and towns and families — stand-off firepower ups the ante. President Donald Trump disclaimed American responsibility to address the costs of rebuilding Iraq after the American-supported victory.
Will President Joe Biden feel differently? But more to the point, how will President Biden respond should the Government of Iraq, once again, formally ask the U.S. to take its fighters home? Influencing the president’s decision will be fact that the reason Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi made the request was that Iran made him an offer he didn’t refuse.
Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing in particular on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries.
Before joining AEI, Dr. Pollack was affiliated with the Brookings Institution, where he was a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Before that, he was the center’s director and director of research. Dr. Pollack served twice at the National Security Council, first as director for Near East and South Asian affairs and then as director for Persian Gulf affairs. He began his career as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA, where he was the principal author of the CIA’s classified postmortem on Iraqi strategy and military operations during the Persian Gulf War. Among other recognitions, Dr. Pollack was awarded the CIA’s Exceptional Performance Award twice and the Certificate of Distinction for Outstanding Performance of Duty, both for work on the Persian Gulf War.
Dr. Pollack has also worked on long-term issues related to Middle Eastern political and military affairs for the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he was a senior research professor at the Institute for National Security Studies at National Defense University.
Dr. Pollack is the author of 10 books, including “Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness” (Oxford University Press, 2019), a history of Arab armies from the end of World War II to the present, in which he assesses the performance of Arab armed forces and the reason for their difficulties; “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy” (Simon & Schuster, 2013.)