“You break it, you own it.”
That was the famous warning of then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to President George W. Bush during the debate leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Mr. Powell suggested that although Iraq under Saddam Hussein was hostile to the United States and our interests in the Middle East, and was in violation of several United Nations resolutions, Mr. Bush ought to think long and hard about what a large-scale military intervention might mean: serious costs in blood and treasure, upheaval and chaos. Perhaps a post-war situation even more inhospitable to American interests than Saddam’s regime. If you break Iraq by intervening militarily and overthrowing the dictator, you will own whatever follows. It became known as “the Pottery Barn rule.”
During the subsequent terrorist insurgency and our unsuccessful pre-surge attempts to get it under control, Democrats and much of the mainstream media never let Mr. Bush forget Mr. Powell’s admonition. At one point, in fact, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proclaimed the war “lost.” Mr. Bush eventually approved the surge, which brought the insurgency to heel and allowed the Iraqi political situation to stabilize. By the end of Mr. Bush’s tenure, Iraq was relatively pacified and on its way to establishing a responsive, representative government.
Enter Mr. Bush’s successor. With his feckless foreign policy, President Obama has broken more states even more gravely — and yet few of Mr. Bush’s critics have raised the alarm. They are clearly experiencing “Pottery Barn rule” amnesia.
Mr. Obama broke the relatively stable and friendly Iraq he inherited in two ways: first, by refusing to leave a residual force in country to deter the region’s most radical elements and to equip and train the nascent Iraqi military. (He is in the process of breaking Afghanistan in a similar way.) His stubborn refusal to provide a follow-on force created a dangerous vacuum into which a newly formed army of jihadis from Syria, Libya and elsewhere stepped. They became ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (now rebranded as the Islamic State), and began a well-orchestrated offensive. They now control vast areas of Syria and western Iraq and continue to advance, threatening to destabilize the entire country. A year ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned Mr. Obama about the growing threat and begged him to provide drone strikes. However, the man who had won his party’s nomination and arguably the presidency with his fierce opposition to the Iraq war would not be moved — breaking Iraq a second time.
Iran has also stepped into the breach left by the United States in Iraq, and while ostensibly assisting Baghdad in fending off ISIS, is solidifying its influence there, even as it builds nuclear weapons unimpeded. The beginning of a new Islamic caliphate, which would gravely imperil our interests — and Israel’s existence — is now underway, thanks to Mr. Obama’s gross negligence.
Mr. Obama’s unwillingness to confront ISIS means that our close ally Jordan is now under increasing threat from the destabilizing forces of the jihadis and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which have the Hashemite kingdom in their sights. Mr. Obama’s inaction may very well lead to the breaking of this key player (as well as the destabilization of Saudi Arabia). Jordan’s King Abdullah did not make his usual trip to the United States this summer in order to try to contain the ever-growing threat to his country.
Mr. Obama also broke a friendly Egypt, when he insisted that President Hosni Mubarak step aside during the fevered demonstrations of the Arab Spring. Mr. Mubarak was no Jeffersonian democrat, but he was a long-standing ally who had signed a formal peace accord with Israel and had kept the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood illegal, incarcerated and at bay. “It’s either me, or the Muslim Brotherhood,” Mr. Mubarak used to remind U.S. and other Western foreign-policy elites, many of whom mocked his seemingly simplistic formulation.
It turns out Mr. Mubarak knew Egypt better than they did. Once he was overthrown, the Brotherhood seized power and began forming alliances with Iran and Russia. It took President Richard Nixon years of intense diplomatic work to get the Soviet Union out of Egypt and the broader Middle East. It took Mr. Obama mere weeks to let the Russians back in. It’s only thanks to the Brotherhood’s ineptitude that Egypt now has a real leader in Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who, despite a lack of support from Mr. Obama, has stabilized Egypt, is marginalizing the Islamists, and is actively helping Israel battle Hamas.
Mr. Obama also broke Libya. Justifying U.S.-led military intervention by citing a nonexistent humanitarian crisis, Mr. Obama saw to it that Libya’s longtime strongman, Moammar Gadhafi, was removed from power. He was killed shortly thereafter, without any of the due process afforded to Saddam. Unlike Saddam, Gadhafi, once an unreconstructed terrorist, was at the time of his overthrow a reliable partner in the war on terrorism, providing us with critical intelligence on al Qaeda and the Brotherhood across North Africa and beyond.
There was no planning for a successor to Gadhafi. Mr. Obama simply led the forces that overthrew him and then left Libya to the un-tender mercies of sundry warring Islamists. The resulting violence and chaos led to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the CIA and diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. The lack of any meaningful U.S. response to the attack signaled to the Islamists that it was open season in Libya. Violent upheaval has raged ever since, leading to the humiliating evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli last week.
Mr. Obama next broke Syria, where he made its bloody civil war worse. Here it wasn’t U.S. intervention, but Mr. Obama’s threat of intervention following President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons — a development Mr. Obama called a “red line.” Mr. Assad crossed it, and after much public Hamlet-like deliberation, Mr. Obama did nothing. As a direct result of the president’s wolf-crying, Mr. Assad felt free to continue the slaughter. The death toll is now estimated to be more than 200,000.
Mr. Obama has irretrievably broken several nations, many of which were friendly and cooperative, and his actions — or lack thereof — may result in the breaking of more nations, further endangering U.S. interests and those of our allies.
“You break it, you own it.” The Democrats and media critics who never let Mr. Bush forget it on Iraq will not apply the same standard to Mr. Obama and his devastating handling of Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Syria. For their failure to hold him accountable the way they did Mr. Bush, they own the chaos, violence and diminution of U.S. power as much as he does.
Monica Crowley is online opinion editor at The Washington Times.