Sunday, June 22, 2014

David Brooks and Pottery Barn Imperialism

One of the reasons I continue to read David Brooks is that he is often unintentionally revealing. Since he is, I think, quite sincere, he does not indulge in clever subterfuge in making his arguments. Thus he sometimes lays bare what otherwise remains hidden behind what Andrew Sullivan last week (ironically) called "noble lies."

In his June 13 column, Brooks tries to lay the blame for Iraq's current travails at the foot of Barack Obama. Before American troops left in 2011, he writes:
American diplomats rode herd on Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to restrain his sectarian impulses. American generals would threaten to physically block Iraq troop movements if Maliki ordered any action that seemed likely to polarize the nation.
After U.S. troops left, he writes:
Almost immediately things began to deteriorate. There were no advisers left to restrain Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. The American efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army came undone.
Brooks never acknowledges the obvious (though unstated) assumption behind all of this: that Iraq could not be expected to function without the United States. It seems that Nuri al-Maliki (hand-picked by George W. Bush in 2007, by the way) bears no responsibility for indulging his "sectarian impulses" (and note that Maliki is ruled by "impulse," not thought or calculation), and the Iraqi army bears no responsibility for not being professional. It is all due to the absence of Americans, who of course, know best.

Brooks says, quite without irony, that "Iraq is in danger of becoming a non-nation." It never occurs to him that a state that--according to him--cannot function without American diplomats riding herd and American generals threatening its leader might already be a "non-nation."

Without knowing it, Brooks embraces an imperial role for the United States. It was America's job to control the Iraqi government, make it do the right thing. The United States should have stayed in Iraq for as long as it took. Leaving Iraq was "American underreach."

Brooks also embraces the reflexive American-centric mindset far too common on both the left and the right in the United States: the idea that whatever happens abroad happens because of something the United States either did or did not do. An incorrect American policy of withdrawal led to this state of affairs. It necessarily follows that whatever is going on in Iraq now can be fixed by the correct American policy.

Neither of those things is true. It is an illusion that Americans cherish because they think it gives them control over a chaotic world.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 broke Iraq. Iraqis thus far have not been able to put it back together. Maybe they never will. The lesson to be learned from that, however, is not what Brooks would have us believe: "The dangers of American underreach have been lavishly and horrifically displayed."

In the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003, Colin Powell allegedly talked about the so-called "Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it." The true lesson of Iraq is this: that American military intervention can easily break a country. It does not follow that American military intervention can just as easily make a country. Having disastrously bungled in breaking Iraq, Brooks would now have the United States once again bungle in trying to make it.

What the United States must "own" is not the state of Iraq, but the responsibility for breaking that state. Those are not the same thing. Responsibility begins with not making the situation worse by repeating the original mistake.

David Brooks, it seems, never learned that lesson. One hopes Barack Obama has.

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