In February 2003, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about “the pottery store rule.” Friedman used this rule to remind U.S. President George W. Bush and those that influenced him that an invasion of Iraq would carry with it the responsibility of rebuilding the nation. In this article, “the pottery store rule,” hereafter referred to as “the rule,” will be defined as militarily defeating a country, then occupying it, and then ensuring that it evolves in a way that benefits U.S. national interests. This article will examine the rule, its application or lack thereof by the U.S., and argues that tendencies (the inclination to think or behave in a certain manner) and potentials (the inherent ability or capacity for growth or development) should be what drive Presidents of the United States when they decide whether or not to act and, if acting, whether or not the U.S. should apply this rule.
At the end of World War One the U.S. did not apply the rule as it did not occupy Germany to ensure its post-war evolution was one which benefitted U.S. national interests. Left to its own devices, the reparations of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, combined with general European inflation, destabilized the Weimar Republic, the government that Germany established at the end of the war. This destabilization led to resentment of the treaty which set the conditions whereby the National Socialist (Nazi) Party and other radical right-wing parties were able to gain support in the 1920s and early 1930s by promising to overturn the treaty’s harsh provisions and make Germany into a major European power once again.
Resentment, and a desire for the restoration of prestige, combined with German tendencies of creative energy, thoroughness, and orderliness, combined with a potential population from which to draw military aged males, set the conditions for World War Two. Had the U.S applied the rule and occupied Germany after World War One, history might be different. Regarding World War Two, had the U.S. not entered the war to help its Allies, German tendencies and potentials might have been able to reach their ultimate form, possibly including Werner Heisenberg succeeding in his efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. In fact, the author was motivated to write this article based upon the television series “The Man in the High Castle,” which depicts a world where the U.S. lost World War Two due to Germany acquiring a nuclear weapon first. This television series caused the author to ask himself “Based upon tendencies and potentials, what could the ultimate form of an unchecked adversary look like?”
On April 7, 1954, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower hosted an historic press conference. During this press conference Eisenhower suggested a French loss to Communists in Vietnam could create a domino effect in Southeast Asia whereby other countries in Southeast Asia would then fall to Communism as if a series of dominoes were falling over. Eisenhower’s “domino theory” laid the foundation for U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
During the Vietnam Conflict, the U.S. never had a chance to apply the rule as it never militarily defeated its enemy. The Vietnamese tendency is to resist foreign occupiers like it did the Chinese from 111 B.C. to 980 A.D., the Japanese and French during World War Two, and the French and the U.S. from 1954 to 1975. Though the author was unable to locate Vietnamese population data as part of examining Vietnamese potential, the terrain in Vietnam makes up for possible manpower shortfalls as it enables the Vietnamese to wage successful guerrilla campaigns, on their terms, against invaders. Venturing into the realm of alternative timelines, if President Eisenhower had acknowledged the aforementioned Vietnamese tendencies and potentials, had not-intervened, and Vietnam been united under Communism sometime in the 1950s, what would have its ultimate form looked like? The truth in this alternative timeline lies somewhere between a Communist Vietnam that kept to itself and did not threaten its neighbors and a Communist Vietnam that pursued the development of nuclear weapons in order to dominate the region.
In the years that followed the 9/11 attacks the U.S. attempted to apply the rule in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, like Vietnam, has a tendency to resist foreign occupiers like the British from 1837 to 1929 and the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989. The Pashtuns, which as of May 2018 make up 45% of Afghanistan’s population, lean towards Pashtunwali as the ideal of honorable behavior, which supports their struggle for freedom, independence, and for their faith. Afghanistan, like Vietnam, has terrain that enables the Afghan potential to wage successful guerrilla campaigns, on their terms, against invaders. Venturing again into the realm of alternative timelines, following the 9/11 attacks, if President Bush had acknowledged the aforementioned Afghanistan tendencies and potentials, and, instead of attempting to apply a rule that was successful in World War Two Germany to a vastly different Afghan culture, decided to conduct a punitive expedition(s) to punish the Afghan Taliban for harboring al Qaeda, and then left Afghanistan untouched since 2002, what would Afghanistan’s ultimate form looked like? The truth in this alternative timeline lies somewhere between an Afghan Taliban that received the U.S. message about the ramifications for harboring al Qaeda in a language the Afghan Taliban values — violence — and no longer does so, or an Afghan Taliban that decided to continue its bad behavior.
While already intervening in Afghanistan, the United States attempted to apply the rule in Iraq. The U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003 as it believed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein manufactured and possessed weapons of mass destruction and harbored terrorists. As President, Hussein acknowledged that Iraqi tendencies were spread across multiple groups such as its Arab Sunni Muslim and Arab Shia Muslim populations, and the Kurds, Assyrians, and Turkmen, and he used violence to rule and attempt to force cohesion. While the toppling of Hussein enabled each of these groups to have a voice of some kind within the Iraqi government, accompanying this voice is the general dysfunction of government by committee. Regarding potential, in this case economic potential, in 1989, before Hussein ordered Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Iraq’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was roughly $38 billion dollars, as measured in 2003 dollars. As of 2018, Iraq’s GDP is roughly $218 billion dollars. Taking into account an inflation rate from 2003 to 2018 of 36%, the $218 billion dollars in 2018 is roughly $159 billion dollars in 2003. Venturing into the realm of alternative timelines, if President Bush had acknowledged Iraq’s tendencies and potentials, and Hussein would have continued to rule beyond 2003, what would Iraq’s ultimate form look like? The truth in this alternative timeline lies somewhere between a Saddam Hussein who, emboldened by the 9/11 attacks, ignoring U.S. actions in Afghanistan, and angry at the U.S. for its repression of his regime through economic sanctions and military operations, embarks on a campaign of violence against any U.S. assets he can target, and a Hussein that generally keeps to himself, occasionally gets out of line to message his neighbors, but then quickly gets back in line following U.S. actions. Both of these alternative timelines envision a Hussein operating at a significantly lower economic potential than today’s Iraq.
All of the preceding attempts to illustrate that a President of the United States must know, based upon tendencies and potentials and an examination of alternative timelines, when to act, when not to act, and whether or not to apply the pottery store rule. Had the U.S. applied the rule at the end of World War One, maybe this would have precluded World War Two. Based upon looking at Communist Vietnam today, it is unlikely that a Communist Vietnam beginning in the 1950s would have led to a greater threat to U.S. interests, even with the Soviet Union being strong at the time. Attempting to apply the rule in Afghanistan, thinking that post World War Two Germany success was transferrable, was not only wrong from a tendencies and potentials point of view, but also incorrect in that the World War Two success was predicated on a level of violence that was not mirrored in Afghanistan and a level of monetary investment in the Marshall Plan that was also not mirrored in Afghanistan. Regarding tendencies and potentials in Iraq, a Hussein-free Iraq, while good for the people of Iraq, likely was not necessary as Hussein was already contained via means short of regime change and his presence balanced the tendencies and potentials of other actors within the region. In closing, as the reader likely knows, national security is not as simple as a single rule. After examining tendencies, potentials, and alternative timelines, a United States President’s decision might be to break it, break it and buy it, or simply leave it alone.
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