Coalition Management: A Preliminary Report Card

The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were a grim reminder to the American people that in the struggle against terrorism, we can use all the help we can get. As Colin Powell acknowledged succinctly, “There are no unilateralists now.” In fashioning a counterterrorist coalition embracing virtually all civilized nations, President Bush, Powell, and others in the administration displayed remarkable dexterity and dispatch. Josef Joffe, a highly respected European observer, paid appropriate tribute to that achievement by noting, “Never in the history of diplomacy have so many been harnessed by so few in so short a time.”

Nine months after the attacks, it seems clear that managing this coalition will be even more challenging than putting it together. Why? Because it includes countries, like India and Pakistan, that are often at loggerheads. Because moderate Muslim countries crucial to the coalition remain vulnerable to domestic destabilization. Because other governments whose participation is critical, including many in Europe, entertain notions about the sources of international terrorism and appropriate remedies for it that diverge significantly from our own. Because some of our best friends, like the Israelis, are pursuing their own struggle against terrorist tactics in ways that, while understandable, also compound the difficulties of holding a global coalition together. And because as time passes, the moral clarity of the choices we confronted last September has begun to dissipate.

These difficulties notwithstanding, coalition management is one of the strong suits of American diplomacy. We organized and managed a global system of alliances against the Soviet Union for nearly half a century. And in 1990-91 another Bush administration did a masterful job of combining coalition diplomacy and force to evict Iraq from Kuwait.

To be sure, sustaining a coalition against terrorism presents novel challenges. Today the greatest threat to our national security comes not from another superpower, but from networks of murderous religious fanatics that possess neither territory nor any other attributes of sovereignty. It is doubtful, moreover, whether the normal logic of deterrence applies in dealing with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda operatives. They have demonstrated a readiness to die, as well as kill, in the name of religion. They honor no distinction between combatants and civilians. They count on stealth to conceal their identity as a means of escaping retaliation.

Still, terrorists operate in a geopolitical environment. Terrorist organizations cannot long survive without the support or acquiescence of governments. As we defend ourselves and our friends, many states appear prepared to help locate terrorists, track them down, bring them to justice, or eliminate them.

Coalition management, like all diplomacy, is more like directing an orchestra than composing a score. It demands the harmonization of many contributions. Judging from the record of the past nine months, the administration has demonstrated a natural aptitude for this diplomatic “core competence.”

The administration defined the enemy—Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and other terrorist organizations “with a global reach”—with clarity. It has emphasized that our quarrel is not with the Arab or Muslim world, but with terrorists and those who extend them support, safe haven, or weapons of mass destruction. And the president clearly labeled one struggle as war, not a law enforcement matter.

Rather than trying to get everyone into the same tent, the administration has allowed the mission to inform the search for collaborators. In promoting intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation, it has properly cast a wide net. For complex military undertakings, it has been more attentive to operational considerations and has limited requests for allied assistance. In practical terms it is organizing coalitions of “the willing and able.”

The administration understands that in power politics “there are elephants and there are squirrels.” The particular attention it has paid to the major powers—the UK, Germany, France, Russia, China, Japan, and India—has clearly paid off.

Recognizing that the Arab and Islamic world is the main battleground of the antiterrorist campaign, the administration has consolidated and extended cooperative links with moderate Muslim countries, like Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, yet insisted that they terminate hate-mongering against America in their schools, mosques, and media.

While expressing skepticism about “root cause” theories of terrorism that highlight poverty or the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, the administration knows that it must counter al Qaeda efforts to tap into wider sources of resentment against the United States. A more active role in Middle East diplomacy and new economic aid reform proposals reflect this understanding.

The administration also realizes that our preeminence in many aspects of national power could prompt other great powers to coalesce to check our dominance. During the Cold War we reminded others of the value they derived from cordial relations with the United States by shouldering a disproportionate share of the costs of “common goods”—contributing generously to others’ security, promoting freer trade, and investing in transnational institutions even though they sometimes constrained our freedom of action. The administration’s gutsy decision to proceed with the World Trade Ministerial Talks in Doha last fall and its major effort to secure new Trade Promotion Authority illustrate its awareness of the continued importance of these “common goods” and our stake in supporting them.

Finally, the administration has encouraged a bipartisan approach to counterterrorism and sought to elicit Democratic Party support in Congress for its diplomatic and strategic priorities.

To be sure, there have been slips, and there’s plenty of work left to do. Differences over strategy within the administration still fuel European complaints about U.S. “unilateralism,” and key allies continue to pursue policies at cross purposes with ours toward Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Cultivation of the Russians is paying off, yet until recently too little of Washington’s dialogue with Moscow has been devoted to preventing weapons of mass destruction from “leaking” into the hands of terrorists. The administration has brought in help from Madison Avenue to help make its case in the Arab world, yet efforts to encourage Muslim clerics to brand terrorist tactics as religious apostasy have produced, to date, only mixed results. Recent protectionist measures on steel and textiles may have been embraced to win congressional support for Trade Promotion Authority legislation, but they surely complicate relations with key allies as well. Not all these problems can be laid at the door of the administration. It could use the help of a Democratic Party analogue to Senator Arthur Vandenberg, President Truman’s Republican partner in an earlier era of coalition building.

Adjusting coalition diplomacy to a new organizing principle—counterterrorism—is no easy task. The perils we confront are real; the policy circuits may be overloaded; the struggle we have joined will surely be protracted.

All these are additional reasons to approach the decision to strike militarily at Iraq with patience. Key allies are not yet convinced of the need for military action, yet it is hard to envisage a successful military campaign without active help from Turkey and Kuwait and the acquiescence of the Saudis. The Middle East strategy on which we have embarked requires strong pressure on Israel that is hard to imagine with midterm elections looming. Implementing revised sanctions against Iraq and pressing the United Nations to send unconstrained weapons inspectors to Baghdad, even if ultimately unsuccessful, will take some time but could help lay the necessary predicates needed to secure allied support for future military action. In the end, we will have to do most of the “heavy lifting” vis-à-vis Iraq by ourselves. But we’re more likely to maximize support from our coalition partners if we exhaust other means of dealing with Iraq first.