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Bush's "Pottery Barn" Legacy

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Once the November elections are over, George Bush's presidency will enter its "lame duck" period. Historically, this has been a time when politicians and pundits ponder the president's legacy. But there's no need to wait until 2007, for we already know that Dubya's legacy will be the Pottery Barn rule. This has been his distinctive mark, particularly his handling of the Middle East.

Before the invasion of Iraq, then Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to reason with President Bush about the consequences, citing what he termed, the Pottery Barn rule: "You break it, you own it." (It turned out that this was not a policy of the Pottery Barn, but by the time executives of the huge retail chain issued their denial, the Pottery Barn rule had already secured its place in American political lore.) Dubya has proven to be adept at ignoring sage counsel and blundering onward like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Certainly no President in recent memory has broken so many elements of U.S. Domestic and Foreign policy. Indeed, it's hard to think of anything that the Bush Administration has touched that it has not broken. The rich and powerful might point to their lower tax rates, but rational observers would say that Dubya's "cut taxes and continue to spend "policies have sown the seeds of economic chaos for decades to come.

The application of the Pottery Barn rule goes far beyond merely breaking a common sense rule or well-established policy. Our experience with the Bush Administration suggests that there are four stages to what would better be described as the Pottery Barn disorder. Breaking is only the first stage. The second immediately follows: no matter how obvious the act of breakage may be, Bush denies it, "I never touched it." In the third stage the White House goes further, cranking up their propaganda machine to assert, "It was broken before I got here." But they are not satisfied with merely lying about what happened; in the fourth stage the Administration impugns the character of anyone who disagrees with them, "only a traitor would accuse me of breaking it."

To fully understand the pathology of the Pottery Barn disorder lets consider how it was applied in Iraq and in the more recent handling of Israel's invasion of Lebanon. The first step was the actual breakage. In Iraq this consisted of launching an invasion without a plan for an occupation. In the case of Israel what broke was the historic U.S. diplomatic policy of maintaining an appearance of even-handedness. Bush decreed that whatever the government of Israel did would be okay and treated Israel's neighbors as if they didn't matter. It became okay for Israel to build new settlements on the West Bank or to kill civilians in Gaza, but not acceptable for Palestinians to protest.

The second stage was for Bush to take the stance, "I never touched it; it was broken when I got here." To this day, the President denies that Iraq is broken, refuses to admit that his ill-conceived invasion without an exit plan has plunged the nation into civil war. The Administration used a variety of clever phrases to explain away chaos. Who can forget Donald Rumsfeld's observation, "Democracy is messy," when he was asked about the lack of security that fueled the looting of Baghdad? In Israel the Administration's evasion has taken the form of diplomatic sophistry: the contention that whatever happens, however belligerent Israel may be, they remain our trusted ally; whatever their response is, it's justified because "terrorists" besiege them.

The third stage immediately follows. The Bush Administration cranks up their propaganda machine and bombards the American public with Orwellian messages: war is peace, up is down, black is white. Iraq is going to be fine; Bush makes a five-hour visit to Baghdad's massively fortified green zone and says, "I was inspired to be able to visit the capital of a free and democratic Iraq." Israel is a victim; Bush refers to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "a man of peace."

Inevitably the fourth stage of the Pottery Barn disorder arrives: the Administration systematically impugns the character of anyone who suggests that their policy is broken. Decorated war hero Congressman John Murtha criticizes the Bush Iraq policy and the White House responds by suggesting that Murtha is irrational, someone who appeases terrorists, and a coward. Now comes the heavy-handed Israeli response to the kidnapping of their soldiers. Yet, anyone who criticizes Israel or the Administration's "hands-off" policy is accused of being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. But it's reasonable to observe that Israel's response of killing civilians and destroying the public infrastructure in Gaza and Lebanon is at best counter-productive and at worst a serious violation of international law. Ah, but such criticism flies in face of Bush's Pottery Barn disorder: Nothing is broken; we never touched it; and anyone who suggests otherwise is a traitor.

It's useful to remember that George Bush came to power in no small part because of his promise to initiate a "responsibility era." No doubt, Dubya would like this to be his legacy. But it won't be. Americans know too much about him. We understand that his real legacy is the Pottery Barn disorder.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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