The Precarious Coalition
"Coalition" is a much-bandied word these days. Pentagon briefings, George Bush's speeches, and mainstream media coverage use the word liberally -- conjuring visions of a large band of allies working in unison in the Iraqi desert to oust Saddam Hussein.
To reinforce this impression, the White House supplemented the original list of 30 nations over the weekend. The latest entries, however, were composed mostly of names that were previously withheld as too embarrassing to disclose as allies -- but now serve to pad the list in the smoke of war while the media are looking elsewhere.
But the announcement was at least less cryptic than previous statements on the so-called coalition. Donald Rumsfeld said last Thursday night that the war on Iraq was underway with the "substantial support of Britain and Australia and others." But he did not clarify that the two countries he named are the only ones committing combat troops. Nor did he elaborate on the identities of the mysterious "others."
When Secretary of State Colin Powell announced last week that there were 30 countries in the "coalition of the willing," he also referred to "15 other nations, for one reason or another, who do not wish to be publicly named, but will be supporting the coalition." That's just what you need in time of war -- 15 allies who are so convinced of your cause that they want to hide their faces!
This weekend we learned who some of these mysterious others are: Costa Rica, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Kuwait, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Mongolia, Palau, Panama, Portugal, Rwanda, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Uganda and Bulgaria.
Bulgaria, which stood with the U.S. in the Security Council through thick and thin, had protested vociferously at being left off the original list. Could it have been inadvertently overlooked, even though Washington paid $1.7 billion to buy the pre-Gulf War Iraqi debt to Bulgaria?
Portugal is also an enthusiastic supporter -- so much so that its support was taken for granted. The U.S. forgot to tell its prime minister that the Azores summit was taking place on his territory, and then had to invite him along to make up for the gaffe. They have now remembered to put it on the list.
As for the other shrinking violets, their anonymity probably had less to do with any reservations on their part than with Washington's embarrassment at invoking their less than considerable military powers for the coalition. They are mostly the same countries that were weak enough to be bullied into signing bilateral treaties with the United States to exempt it from the International Criminal Court.
To refresh your memory, the original State Department roster of the 30 states included the following: Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Azerbaijan, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, Britain and Uzbekistan. And that brings the total number of nations supporting the U.S. up to a grand total of 46.
But even these latest additions do little to promote the administration's claims about international diplomatic support. The list is like the so-called "evidence" Powell presented to the Security Council. Upon closer scrutiny, it collapses like a deflated freedom soufflé.
Let's begin with the small but mighty entrants -- the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. The three former Pacific Trust territories' entire budget depends on the U.S. Congress, and treaties put their entire defense and a significant say in their foreign policy in the hands of Washington.
The administration does not have much regard for consistency, but it is difficult to question the rights of small countries like Angola or Guinea to vote on the Security Council and then crow about the support of Palau, which is a few square miles in the middle of nowhere that can, at best, lob a few coconuts at Iraq if asked nicely.
Rwanda at least has a legitimate axe to grind -- they hate the French, like Rush Limbaugh, but with more cause.
For many others, membership in the war coalition is hardly a matter of choice. Like Bulgaria, Albania, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, all either want to join NATO or have recently done so. But they each need American support in case Moscow ever gets feisty again So do the former Soviet republics like Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, which is one of the most vicious and tyrannical regimes outside Iraq. Mongolia, sandwiched between Russia and China, needs any friends it can get, while Singapore, marooned between Malaysia and Indonesia may be a friend in need at some point.
Others like South Korea and Japan are equally dependent on Washington's whims. Afghanistan is about as likely to buck Washington as Osama Bin Laden to eat a ham sandwich. Colombia needs U.S. military aid to fight the FARC rebel forces. Longtime enemies Eritrea and Ethiopia dare not allow the other to get U.S. support, so they both signed on just to be sure.
In other cases, Washington's list seems to be a case of willful exaggeration. It includes, for example, the Netherlands, which has promised a Patriot battery to protect Turkey in case of an Iraqi attack, and is at best a tangential member of the coalition. Turkey itself refused to allow US troops or air bases but under pressure from its military agreed to U.S. over-flights. It's hardly a resounding show of support. The Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer recently said, "The United Nations Security Council process on Iraq should have been allowed to finish. I do not find it right that the U.S. behaved unilaterally before that process ended." And 94 percent of Turks agreed with him.
The attitude of the Philippines is equally suspect. Although it has U.S. troops fighting "terrorists" within its country, many Filipinos were surprised at being counted in the coalition. The Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said the administration had not yet cast its lot with the coalition. In fact, the U.S. claim of Czech support has been rebutted officially by the Prime Minister and the President, but that has not stopped Washington from including them on the list.
The participation of Denmark and Iceland is puzzling, but then Denmark is sending a submarine, which is really useful in the desert. Their statements of support have been highly ambiguous and the majority of the Danes and all the opposition parties oppose the war.
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of this list is the human rights record of many of these countries, which seem unlikely allies in any project to build a democratic Iraq. The International Press Institute in Vienna characterized the list as the "Coalition of the Sinning." Director Johann Fritz characterized Eritrea and Ethiopia as countries "ruled by totalitarian governments who care little for human rights in general and press freedom in particular." About Azerbaijan's media, he said "the working conditions in this country are nothing short of alarming." Fifteen journalists have been murdered in Colombia, making it "the most dangerous country in the world" for the media. In Georgia and Uzbekistan, "the high costs far outweigh the benefits of practicing journalism."
The regimes of Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Honduras have a history of relying on terror squads a la Saddam. The Central American republics are also the only ones to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Panama is, of course, well aware of the benefits of American invasions and just wants to share the good news -- but its presence makes one gasp at the ingratitude of Grenada for sticking to its guns.
Finally, we come to the small core of democratic governments who have freely volunteered their services to the cause. There is Italy, which is ruled by Silvio Berlusconi, a political descendant of Mussolini, and Spain, whose premier is in Franco's old party. So they both have a political precedent for ignoring the will of the 80 percent of their own people who oppose the war. But unfortunately their staunch support does not include actually sending troops.
Britain and Australia's population also do not like the war, but British policy is to counterbalance the U.S. against Europe. And Australia is worried about all those Asians to the North and they both hope that Washington will show due gratitude. Indeed, Howard and Blair probably still believe in the tooth fairy.
Let's not forget the allies that still remain unnamed. The Arab states, Bahrain, Djibouti and Qatar, are in fact providing facilities for the invasion, but along with other predominantly Muslim states like Mauritania, members of the Arab League need to be circumspect about public support for the invasion. Conversely, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the invasion is Israel. But even this most diplomatically challenged of administrations can see that boasting of Israeli support does not add international luster to your cause.
So we are now in a war that was opposed not just by the majority of members of the Security Council and the General Assembly, but also most of the citizens of our allied nations and even by some of its governments. When it comes to this war for democracy, one can only rephrase Shakespeare on greatness: Some are bought into coalition, others are coerced into it, but most have had it thrust upon them.