The “Pottery Barn Principle” has tremedous informal influence in the on-going debate about what to do in Iraq. The quick summary is incredibly evocative: “you broke it, you bought it” applies in international affairs, just as it does at Pottery Barn and other stores. So the U.S. “owns” the Iraq problem and can’t leave until stability and happiness return to the land.
Of course, the principle is rarely enforced at stores like Pottery Barn. Nice stores understand in advance that they have fragile displays, with glasses stacked in precarious poses to make them look nice for potential customers. So the owners and managers expect some glasses to break from time to time. And the stores focus on making the unfortunate customer who accidentally bumps into the wine glass display while backing away to get a different perspective on the beautiful $800 console table feel comfortable enough to come back to the store — or perhaps even to buy the console table that very day. Other customers don’t turn and stare and clap and otherwise humiliate the unfortunate, clumsy person, as they would do in a high school cafeteria. Nice stores are much more grown up and understanding.
Yet the analogy still holds strange power in the foreign policy debate. Many Americans really have a deep streak of responsibility. The U.S. “owes” something to Cambodia, to Guatemala, to the Philippines. As a country, we don’t always act on our guilt, but sometimes we do, and there’s a deep reservoir of support that prioritizes efforts to improve the lives of people that the U.S. had something to do with harming over efforts simply to help people. Many Americans want to do good in the world, and that matters; the impulse to do good tinged with the guilt of having done ill in the past matters even more.
But how much sense does that make? Even in the moral framework, I think it’s tough to make the case for the pottery barn principle.I think the basic moral claim is that Americans are so much better off than others that we should try to help them. We can afford to use some of our vast wealth for that charitable purpose. We can debate whether the government should have a role in that decision (compared to private charity), whether military means are suitable (compared to economic ones, for example, where people are less likely to get coerced or killed), etc. But Americans, including me, really do respond to appeals for charity.
At TPM Café’s America Abroad blog, Justin Traub recently blogged about his struggle to decide what to do in international affairs (especially Iraq) once he decided that the Hippocratic Oath would not offer moral guidance. He argues that “Do No Harm” cannot guide us in Iraq, because all of our options in Iraq are ugly. So he then raises a number of good ethical questions — but in the background, he’s feeling guilty about Iraq. His assumption is that the U.S. has a particular need to “mitigate the harm” and “apportion it between the Iraqis and ourselves.” I think he doesn’t have the right overall framework.
Why does the moral claim of an Iraqi automatically rise to the very top of the American priority list? There are many places in the world where we can help people, many places where people are suffering terribly. In many of those places, they actually want our help to make their lives better, while many people in Iraq primarily want American help to vanquish their political opponents. Part of the reason that we have such morally ambiguous choices in Iraq is that our partners don’t share our morals. But we have many choices of partners in the world who are closer to our own morals — who won’t use additional resources to engage in sectarian violence against their neighbors. And so in those cases, we can take some moral action — engage in our charitable impulse — while following (at least more closely) the Hippocratic Oath. We only need to do at least some harm (choosing the least bad option) because we choose to commit our resources to an especially wicked problem, the situation in Iraq.
It also seems quite reasonable to me to combine Americans’ charitable impulse with Americans’ pragmatism and practicality. Why not consider the likely effectiveness of various foreign policy actions as part of the moral decision-making? Within that part of our international engagement that is driven by the desire to make others better off, why not choose policy targets (and parts of the world) where our assistance, dollar for dollar, is most likely to succeed? Even worse than dollar for dollar, we should consider the possibilities in terms of the lives of aid-workers and soldiers. Why choose to aid suffering people where the aid is least likely to be effective rather than to aid suffering people where the aid is most likely to be effective? Sure, intentions matter in the moral calculus: I have to want to help people to get moral credit. But surely the results matter, too: the best intentions that helped no one are not as “good” as good intentions that actually did result in alleviating suffering.
With respect to Iraq, Traub points out that “It’s so easy to foresee the wreckage, and so hard to imagine anything like a safe landing.” But he’s still asking the wrong question. We see wreckage and struggle to imagine a safe landing, but really what we need to imagine is the likelihood that various American actions will contribute to the safe landing. And that’s much harder to see.
As an aside, at least Bush’s surge strategy for Iraq tells a story about how it will get to a safe landing — admitting that we will infantilize the Iraqi security forces in the short term because stability is more important for now. But the strategy also hides the fact that Americans will be asked to commit terrible acts of violence in the short term in order to impose stability, asked to cooperate with Shiite militias who we are only gently asking to disarm while we aggressively attack Sunni groups, and asked to simply hope that short-term stability is, in fact, what matters most in a country of people who have intense differences of interest about which they are more than willing to fight and kill.
Traub’s next bit gets a lot right about civil wars:
Perhaps nothing will matter as much as we think: I’ve written elsewhere that civil wars have the internal dynamic of forest fires, and tend to rage on until they run out of fuel.
The point is that U.S. intervention is unlikely to do much to control the Iraqi killing. Our moral choice is not about Iraqi killing. It’s about who we can help around the world. We’re not doing good in Iraq now. It’s hard to make the case that 20,000 more American soldiers in Baghdad will allow enough block-by-block policing to put a complete stop to sectarian killing. I don’t see us as likely to even manage to suppress much violence there. But I’m sure that, if we want to decide our foreign policy on moral grounds, there are other things at which we would be much more likely to succeed. People need clean water, vaccinations, etc. Why not help them?
Even though I doubt that aid is the answer, and I especially doubt that military aid is the answer, I feel pretty strongly that I can do better with imperfect tools in many places than I can in Iraq. Guilt — the pottery barn principle — should not lead me to abandon alternative moral principles, my altruistic urge to help people about whom I don’t feel guilty, and my commitment to effectiveness not just intentions.