Last week, Iraq’s independent electoral commission disqualified 511 candidates – most of them Sunnis – from running in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March. Today’s Washington Post reports that Vice President Joe Biden is hurrying off to Baghdad to try to convince the Iraqis to change their minds. U.S. troop withdrawals were supposed to accelerate after the elections were held and a new government seated. But the elections have already been postponed at least once, and the administration is worried that the obvious bias against Sunnis could stoke sectarian tensions.
“U.S. officials are in a precarious position,” the Post story explains:
They are stuck between the government they created and bolstered – a coalition of mostly sect- and ethnic-based coalitions dominated by Shiite Arabs – and politicians who have been branded as loyalists to the dictator deposed during the U.S.-led invasion.
If that weren’t difficult enough, Biden doesn’t want to appear to be pressuring the Iraqis, and Prime Minister Maliki and his crew don’t want to appear to have been pressured. As a senior administration official told the Post:
“[N]o one wants to be perceived as defending the rights of Baathists” and no Iraqi decision-maker wants to be the first to publicly declare that the ruling must be reversed.
It is times like these when I am reminded of Colin Powell’s infamous Pottery Barn rule. Never mind that he never publicly invoked that precise metaphor. Never mind that Pottery Barn has no rule. The point is that the average person understands the simple premise: you break it, you own it.
But what Powell actually told President George W. Bush in August 2002, if Bob Woodward’s reconstruction of the event is to be trusted, is actually more insightful and telling than the shorthand version. And it is particularly a propos with respect to the most-recent election kerfuffle.
“You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” he told the president, “You will own all their hopes, aspirations, problems. You’ll own it all.”
We “own” the Iraqis without wanting to appear to own them. We are responsible for the behavior of the government that we put into power, but without the leverage (or inclination) to compel that government to do as we see fit. And we – all Americans, but especially the troops still stuck in that country – pay the price when they behave in ways harmful to our strategic interests.
As the teenagers might say, “Good luck with that.”