Learning the Hard Way Not to Fight Alone

Jeremy Shapiro and Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 18, 2004

One lesson the Bush administration should have learned from Iraq is the one Winston Churchill drew 60 years ago: the only thing worse than fighting a war with allies is having to fight without them. With Spain moving away from its policy of supporting the US in Iraq and political pressure mounting on other allies, the Bush administration needs to rethink the role of its coalition partners before that lesson becomes even more brutally clear.

In early 2002, Mr Bush set America on a course to war in Iraq with scant input from allies. A leader with such a starkly different domestic political philosophy and culture was always going to have trouble winning support in Europe, but Mr Bush’s policy choices exacerbated the problem. He went to the United Nations only after his top advisers rejected the main alternative to war – weapons inspections. He quickly dispatched military forces to the Gulf knowing the deployment could not be sustained indefinitely, thereby adding to pressure for war. He exaggerated Iraqi links with terrorist groups and weapons of mass destruction capabilities and berated some longstanding allies. He failed to sufficiently engage key players like Russia and Turkey, and his determination to punish German leader Gerhard Schroder for playing politics with the war drove Germany toward France and helped bolster their resistance. Mr Bush’s characterisation of the conflict as part of a new “pre-emptive defence” doctrine shifted the focus of debate from Iraq to the international order and America’s role in the world.

Behind this approach was Mr Bush’s conviction that the US was powerful enough to act unilaterally, and his confidence that it would not have to. His theory of coalition-building was that decisive US leadership would inevitably lead others to follow and if allies failed to join, that would be their problem, not America’s.

Nearly a year after US bombs began falling on Baghdad, it seems clear that America might not need others to topple a dictatorship, but it certainly needs them to put an alternative in place. Of course, even if the Spanish withdraw, the Americans will not be the “only ones left” in Iraq. Plenty of countries, particularly Britain, have provided military and financial aid. Yet, despite talk of the “coalition,” the harsh reality is that the US is still providing over 80 per cent of the international troops, 90 per cent of the money and taking 90 per cent of the foreign casualties there. Meanwhile, the heavy costs of the campaign are adding to a ballooning US budget deficit, military and intelligence resources have been diverted from other aspects of the war on terrorism, the US army is overstretched and communities across America have been disrupted because Reserve and National Guard troops have been sent to Iraq. It is not exactly a situation Mr Bush may have had in mind when he confidently asserted in his 2003 State of the Union address that “the course of this nation does not depend on others.”

Having partners is vital not only because of their material assistance, but more importantly because of the legitimacy they can help confer on an operation. Perceived legitimacy is essential for maintaining domestic support for a costly struggle and persuading other countries to contribute resources. A broad coalition would also help convince Iraqis of international determination to rebuild and help democratise their country. In addition, and to the surprise of the Bush administration, international institutions can prove to be more effective than the US acting alone. The success of UN envoy Lakdar Brahimi in persuading Iraq’s top Shia leader not to insist on premature elections is an example of how international legitimacy can be crucial to solving problems.

Mr Bush’s flawed assumption was that victory in Iraq would provide ex-post-facto legitimacy, embarrass those who questioned the urgency of the threat and restore US credibility around the world. But that theory has proved as fragile as Iraq’s postwar political structures.

As the problems mount in Iraq, these lessons are starting to sink in, even in the White House. Under international pressure, the Bush administration has begun to give the UN something closer to the “vital role” it initially promised but failed to deliver, and accelerated plans for a transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis. Mr Bush has sent former Secretary of State James Baker, architect of the first Gulf War coalition, on a diplomatic mission to seek Iraqi debt relief and is also exploring Nato involvement in Iraq.

Mr Bush remains distrustful of allies and reluctant to share US authority, but he also knows how vulnerable he is an election year to the charge that he saddled the US with an enormous burden that Americans do not want to bear alone. His only hope of keeping Spain, and perhaps other increasingly uncomfortable members of the coalition, on board will be to enhance the mission’s legitimacy with an even greater UN role and engaging in serious diplomacy with all of Europe’s leaders.

On one level, Mr Bush’s instinct that the world needs decisive US leadership is correct. No American leader can or should subordinate the country’s security interests to the winning the blessings of the UN Security Council. But the issue is not whether the US should ask for a “permission slip” to act, as Mr Bush derisively claimed in his 2004 State of the Union address. It is that the absence of broad international support for a particular course of US action increases the costs of that action immeasurably. The lesson for Washington from the Spanish election is that power and decisiveness alone are not enough to win enduring support from allies. The next time the US faces a crisis like Iraq, its leaders must think more carefully before acting alone, equating dissent with disloyalty and seeking to punish allies for lack of devotion to the cause.