If one political lesson above all can be drawn from the 20th century, it must be that no nation is ever "owned" by another. Decolonization, the breakup of the Soviet empire, America's defeat in Vietnam, the Palestinian intifada and other events speak authoritatively and clearly on this.
So it is both glib and pernicious to propagate the notion that the United States has "broken" Iraq and therefore "owns" it. You do not need Pottery Barn to tell you this is a policy that neither large corporations nor superpowers can enforce.
It would relieve Saddam Hussein and foreign jihadists of their responsibility, or credit, if you will, for the hell on earth that central Iraq has long been. It would deprive Iraqis of their obligation to break the spell of passivity that Baathist dictatorship, past American betrayal and an oil economy have cast on them. It would reduce the Iraqi elections a little over a fortnight away to being a function of George W. Bush's brilliance, or his stupidity.
That last point is a major part of the attraction for Bush critics and supporters alike to substitute slogans for analysis of Iraq's complexities. Even the president and his aides at times neglect the reality that Iraqis must be swiftly entrusted and empowered to remake their own country in their own image.
Two constant mistakes of the occupation have been the complex social engineering practiced on a country that Americans scarcely know, and a refusal to trust the Iraqis. Those mistakes must not be carried through in official Washington's reaction to the Jan. 30 elections, which should establish an unfettered majority rule in Iraq.
As difficult and flawed as it may turn out to be, the election of an Iraqi constitutional assembly is needed, on schedule, to mark a decisive turning point away from U.S. occupation -- from "owning" Iraq, as Colin Powell reportedly used the phrase to Bush before the 2003 invasion.
The so-called Pottery Barn rule is one of several self-defeating myths that have grown up around Iraq and need to be dispelled by the Jan. 30 vote. Another is that the "legitimacy" of the elections will hinge on how many Sunnis vote or boycott.
Legitimacy is a relative concept, as the collection of democracies, dictatorships, kleptocracies and authoritarian regimes that make up the United Nations demonstrates. There is no magic formula for participation by any religious or ethnic group to establish legitimacy. The practicality of power politics does that, for better or worse.
Holding the elections forces Iraq's Sunnis into a similar practical choice: They can vote or they can fight. It would be a major error to let them off the hook of that choice, as those who argue for a substantial delay of the elections explicitly or implicitly advocate.
The neighboring Sunni monarchs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia want to delay the day when Iraq's political order will reflect the fact that Shiites make up the large majority of the population, a fact that Sunnis must at some point acknowledge and accept.
The White House helped Ayad Allawi, its choice as interim prime minister, craft a "Sunni engagement" strategy that, as voting day approaches, has failed to curb escalating violence in Baghdad and the Sunni heartland.
If anything, the option of fighting and voting has given Sunnis all the incentive they needed to do nothing to oppose the terrorist gangs and murder-by-suicide bombings aimed at derailing the elections. State Department officials compounded Allawi's ineffective strategy by leaking a report that the United States would guarantee Sunni representation in a future government -- whatever the election returns.
Surely this is a matter for Iraqis to resolve and for Americans to butt out of six months after Washington supposedly turned over "sovereignty" to Allawi's floundering regime.
The Shiite candidate list backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani contains several highly placed Sunni candidates, two of whom were campaigning in Shiite precincts in and near Najaf this week. They shared the platform with Ahmed Chalabi, the Shiite politician Washington has sought unsuccessfully to marginalize, if not destroy, in part to placate Sunni and Baathist sensitivities.
Chalabi and others are busy negotiating behind the scenes on the shape of a post-election government that at the top will include Sunnis, Kurds and members of other minority groups. It will be an authority that responds to Iraq's domestic political needs, not the unrealistic, more politically correct norms of the State Department.
Bush's challenge does not end with holding elections on Jan. 30. He must be ready to accept and implement their results as well, whatever the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia may tell him about the discomforts of democracy.