Sir Lawrence Freedman Chilcot Inquiry

Lawrence Freedman: America needs a wider coalition, however difficult

Saturday, 29 March 2003 http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/lawrence-freedman-america-needs-a-wider-coalition-however-difficult-592696.html

One of the striking features of American military policy since the "war on terror" was declared is the lack of interest in extended alliances. "The coalition must not determine the mission," observed the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld; instead, "the mission must determine the coalition." The context was the lack of response to members of Nato who had offered military help in Afghanistan. The explanation was not just the Bush administration's inherent unilateralism but the aftermath of the conduct of the Kosovo war of 1999.

One of the striking features of American military policy since the "war on terror" was declared is the lack of interest in extended alliances. "The coalition must not determine the mission," observed the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld; instead, "the mission must determine the coalition." The context was the lack of response to members of Nato who had offered military help in Afghanistan. The explanation was not just the Bush administration's inherent unilateralism but the aftermath of the conduct of the Kosovo war of 1999.

Then the Americans contributed the bulk of the air power, yet its use was subject to constant bickering among Nato members who demanded a say in the choice of targets and, on occasion, vetoes. The Americans could see no correlation between the weight of actual military contributions and the influence demanded in return. To the allies, the equation was different. By signing up to the war they could not avoid the political consequences of military mishaps, and they felt that this gave them the right to suggest how these might be avoided.

So in military terms, coalitions can be more hindrance than help. Every extra capital city to be accommodated complicates and slows down the command arrangements. In political terms, by contrast, coalitions have much to commend them.

They convey broad-based support and confer "legitimacy", that magic quality to be found somewhere in the vicinity of legality and morality.

In Afghanistan, the United States had no problems over legitimacy. The case for dealing with al-Qa'ida directly was widely accepted, including in the UN. This case is different. Legality may be found in past UN resolutions, but extra legitimacy could not be provided by a new one. Domestic public support is tentative. Traditional allies can barely bring themselves to wish the United States and Britain well in a war in which their young men are dying. Relations with a particularly close ally, Turkey, have been soured.

All this has reminded the Americans why coalitions, if nothing else, can provide useful political cover. As this war began, Rumsfeld claimed that a "large and growing" coalition was already in place. Indeed the coalition was larger than that of the 1991 war. Some 46 countries are now listed as supporting the war, said to represent "approximately 1.18 billion people around the world". Unfortunately, even assuming that this was a true reflection of support in the listed countries, which it is clearly not, it would still only constitute 20 per cent of the world's population.

Furthermore, most of the big powers are sitting this one out. Without wishing to disparage the governments of Macedonia, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, they do not constitute the "heavy hitters" of international affairs. Japan, South Korea, Spain and Italy have backed the coalition, but not to the extent of providing combat forces. Other than Britain, only Australia (2,000 troops), Denmark (a submarine and naval escort) and Poland (200 troops and refuelling ship) are making additional contributions.

Despite Rumsfeld's claim, this is far short of the 32 countries that provided combat units during the last Gulf War, not counting those whose contributions were largely financial. As Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution has observed: "Having botched the diplomacy leading up to the war, the United States now has to fight it largely on its own. No amount of spin can alter that fact."

At the same time, the Americans are still probably relieved that they do not have to take account of too many allies in their decision-making. As Britain has made a significant contribution to the first operations, the White House has had to pay attention to Tony Blair's nagging on keeping the UN involved and the Arab-Israeli dispute. For this reason he is viewed as a mixed blessing by those of a neo-conservative persuasion. At the same time, the coalition of the unwilling that refused to go along with the war may have all sorts of views on post-Saddam reconstruction in Iraq, but they are confined to the role of sullen spectators, aware of the long-term political costs of allowing relations with the US to deteriorate even more.

With the military task trickier than first assumed, two like-minded allies working together have a better chance of adapting to changing conditions than a cumbersome coalition, especially if a number were harbouring doubts. Paradoxically also, one of the effects of this is to reduce Iraqi options, as there is so little scope for causing further confusion and disarray amongst their enemies.

Another familiar refrain in Washington is that the US has long since given up expecting to be loved but is content to be respected. Even if it takes time to dislodge Saddam's regime, the US and also Britain will emerge from this conflict hardened in their power and ready to exercise far greater influence over not only the development of Iraq but also the wider Middle East. For them the key question will be whether, having carried so much of the burden of the war effort, they can also carry the post-war effort without much wider international support, and the extent to which they are prepared to share influence to obtain it. The problem of coalition formation will not stop with the war's end.

The author is professor of War Studies at King's College, London