The Coalition That Isn’t

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

March 24, 2003

The Bush administration sure is trying hard to convince the world that its war against Iraq has broad, international support.

Consider the following:

  • Last Monday, the State Department publicized a list of 30 countries supporting a war against Iraq; by Friday it had grown to 46 countries.

  • On Wednesday, President Bush told the world from the Oval Office that “coalition forces have begun striking selective targets” and that “more than 35 countries are giving crucial support.”

  • The next day, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the press: “All told, the population of coalition of the willing is approximately 1.18 billion people around the world…Every major race, religion and ethnic group in the world is represented. The coalition includes nations from every continent on the globe.”

  • Hours later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued that the coalition against Iraq “is large and growing. This is not a unilateral action, as is being characterized in the media. Indeed, the coalition in this activity is larger than the coalition that existed during the Gulf War in 1991.”

  • And over the weekend General Tommy Franks started his briefing on the progress of “coalition forces” in Iraq by introducing British, Australian, Danish, and Dutch officers, while noting that 52 nations were represented at Franks’ Central Command headquarters in Tampa, FL.

The administration is trying too hard to prove something that isn’t. By insisting that the “coalition of the willing” is larger, deeper, and wider than is in fact the case, the administration only emphasizes the extent of its own isolation. Only Britain is offering meaningful support.

Take the list coalition countries the White House is updating daily. Sure, there are some important allies aside from Britain—notably Japan, South Korea, Spain, and Italy as well as number of “new” Europeans. But only three countries of these allies are actually contributing combat troops and capabilities (2,000 Australian troops, a Danish submarine and naval escort, and 200 Polish troops and refueling ship)—all in all less than one percent of the total number of troops in the region. The rest of the list is a motley crew of supporters—including such powerhouses as Afghanistan, Albania, Macedonia, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.

Fleischer’s assertion that the coalition consists of more than a billion people worldwide only underscores the administration’s desperation. By that measure, only about one in five people worldwide supported the military effort against Iraq. But, of course, governments that favor the war are in many cases opposed by their own people. Thus, one of Bush’s staunchest supporters, Spanish Prime Minister Jose-Marie Aznar, reassured his public last week that “Spain will not participate in attack missions. As a result, there will not be any Spanish combat troops in the theater of operations.” Of such allies is the coalition made.

The effort to portray the fighting in Iraq as anything other than an American-British war also lacks credibility. Bush’s insistence that “coalition forces” were striking military targets at the outset was disingenuous—the bombs and cruise missiles that had slammed into Baghdad only moments before were launched from American ships and fighter planes. (On Sunday, The New York Times reported that Australian special operation forces had joined U.S. troops in taking down command and control centers in Iraq at the outset of the war—a fact leaked to emphasize the U.S. was not acting alone.)

General Franks’ parade of foreign officers was also misleading. The Dutch officer was there not as part of any coalition attacking Iraq, but to defend Turkey in case Iraq retaliates. And the 52 nations in Tampa are posted there for the most part to support coalition efforts in Afghanistan, not to participate in a war against Iraq.

But by far the most deceiving claim of the extent of international support was Rumsfeld’s insistence that this “coalition of the willing” is larger than the Gulf War coalition. Twelve years ago, 32 countries joined the United States in combat, providing 160,000 troops, more than 500 combat aircraft, and more than 60 naval vessels. NATO countries contributed 70,000 troops (including 18,000 from France); much of the remainder came from Arab countries. And even those who did not participate on the ground (like Germany and Japan) helped by defraying the cost to the United States of ousting Iraq from Kuwait. (Foreign contributions to the U.S. war effort amounted to $54 billion, covering all but $7 billion of the U.S. costs.)

In 1991, only Cuba, Yemen, Jordan, and the Palestinians openly condemned a war that the UN Security Council voted to authorize (China abstained in the vote). Even Libya was then on our side. Today, Washington suffered a stunning defeat at the United Nations, finds itself opposed by major allies like Canada, France, Germany, and Mexico, and can count on only four other countries actually to participate in combat operations. There is no comparison between the two.

Having botched the diplomacy leading up to the war, the United States now has to fight it largely on its own. To be sure, it’s war that it can win even fighting mostly alone. But the administration clearly realizes that the absence of broad international support is a major problem, both at home and abroad, especially if the going gets any tougher and the post-war effort more demanding.

The administration can spin all it wants about its coalition of the willing, the fact is that for now at least Washington and London are very much on their own.