Operation Inflate the Coalition

During the last Gulf War, 32 nations sent troops. This time around, 3 nations did. So how is Donald Rumsfeld claiming Operation Iraqi Freedom is larger than the '91 coalition?

Published March 22, 2003 12:58AM (EST)

President Bush's critics are constantly slamming his "unilateral war against Iraq," as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democratic presidential candidate, constantly puts it. So it must have been a shock to hear the president say Wednesday night that "more than 35 countries are giving crucial support -- from the use of naval and air bases, to help with intelligence and logistics, to the deployment of combat units." The White House calls this group the "Coalition of the Willing," and on Thursday its numbers increased to 43.

Some critics have questioned how much of a true coalition this is, given that only three countries -- the U.S., U.K. and Australia -- have actually sent soldiers. Asked about this apparent weakness in the "coalition," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on Tuesday said that the White House has "all along said, in terms of actual active combat, there will be very, very few countries."

Since that admission, the White House has gone on an offensive to prove how multilateral this coalition is. It's No. 1 in the administration's talking points. But they may have gone too far. On Thursday, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that the coalition behind Operation Iraqi Freedom is even bigger than the one behind Operation Desert Storm, even some military leaders and veterans of Republican administrations disagreed and were dismayed at the disingenuousness. Meanwhile, some countries the U.S. counts as among the "willing" are continuing to criticize the U.S. military moves against Iraq, raising questions about how willing they really are.

Operation Inflate the Coalition began on Tuesday, when Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the Coalition of the Willing "includes some 30 nations who have publicly said they could be included in such a listing" as well as "15 other nations, who, for one reason or another do not wish to be publicly named but will be supporting the coalition."

The 30 original countries in the Coalition of the Willing, as listed on the State Department Web site, include Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Japan (post conflict), Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan.

On Thursday Rumsfeld escalated the rhetoric. The defense secretary said that the Operation Iraq Freedom coalition is "large and growing" and "not 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," Rumsfeld said.

Many countries have committed combat and combat support forces, Rumsfeld said, while others are contributing other things -- "access, basing, refueling, force protection, intelligence sharing, and the use of airspace. Still others have pledged to participate in stability operations and post-Saddam reconstruction efforts."

Throughout the Pentagon, eyes no doubt rolled.

"I think it's a little disingenuous to compare the number of countries willing to send soldiers into battle in 1991 with the number of countries who are willing to put their names on a list in 2003," a retired senior military officer who served in Operation Desert Storm told Salon, declining to be named. Some 32 countries provided troops in 1991, compared with three this time around.

On Thursday, Fleischer, as is his wont, offered some intriguingly applied numbers to back the argument that the multilateralism of Operation Iraqi Freedom is much like the multilateralism of the previous Gulf War.

Recalling nothing so much as his Florida recount-era claim that "Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold," a claim that Buchanan and all his campaign staffers laughed at, Fleischer engaged in a some crafty comparative mathematics. The percentage of the total military force that the U.S. provided in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, where the international coalition was much heralded, was in the mid-70s. "This a little higher but not much higher," Fleischer said. "It's comparable: in the mid-80s. The numbers are not all that far off from where they were before."

That claim was met with some skepticism. "I find that hard to believe," Lawrence J. Korb -- a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and now director of national security studies for the Council on Foreign Relations -- told Salon. "In terms of combat capability it's not even close."

In the 1991 Gulf War, Korb says, "take a look at what the Middle East countries provided not only in terms of troops but planes and fighter aircraft." Countries in the region "provided 295,000 troops the last time."

Of course, the buildup to the first Gulf War was very different. In November 1990, the U.S. won its war resolution against Iraq by a U.N. Security Council vote of 12-to-2, with China abstaining. Iraq was given a six-week deadline, which it failed to meet, after which the world united and ousted Iraq from Kuwait. In "A World Transformed," the former President Bush attributed this all to "a lot of very effective diplomacy by the whole team -- particularly [former Secretary of State James] Baker and Tom Pickering," the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

In an interview with NPR, Pickering recently said that the current coalition was so small because the current Bush team "began the effort saying we really didn't need anybody else's help, and I think that that became the self-fulfilling prophecy, almost as if we didn't want anybody else's help, and that's certainly where we have ended up.

"They played the unilateral card too hot, too heavy, too fast and too early," Pickering said, "and then shifted to having a multilateral strategy." Even after that, he said, the current Bush administration "continued to do a unilateral shtick on the issue at every occasion that it found possible to do so."

The first Gulf War began with the United States, Britain, France, and Saudi Arabia launching intensive air strikes against Iraq. The United States had 425,000 troops; Britain 35,000; Saudi Arabia had 20,000 troops; France sent 9,800 troops; Canada 1,700; Morocco sent 2,000 troops; Egypt pledged 35,000 troops; Pakistan had 8,000 soldiers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; Syria had 20,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and 50,000 troops on its border with Iraq; Turkey deployed 100,000 of its own troops along the Turkish border; Bangladesh sent 6,000 troops; Niger and Senegal sent 500 men apiece; Honduras 150 troops; and Argentina sent 450 soldiers in a transport boat. Myriad other countries sent backup support, ships, and planes.

"The world has answered Saddam's invasion with 12 United Nations resolutions, starting with a demand for Iraq's immediate and unconditional withdrawal, and backed up by forces from 28 countries of six continents," President George H.W. Bush said in his January 1991 State of the Union address. "With few exceptions, the world now stands as one."

In the current conflict, conversely, the United States has approximately 300,000 troops in the Gulf, Britain has pledged 45,000 soldiers and Australia has sent 2,000 of its elite SAS troops. As for the other countries, it's a rather odd hodgepodge of coalition efforts, including the sending of chemical and biological warfare decontamination personnel and allowing U.S. planes to fly through their airspace without trying to shoot them down.

The robust multilateralism of the first Gulf War was significant not only because of manpower, Korb says, but "because it didn't look like it was the United States against an Arab country, it was the international community against Iraq. But this time we don't have any Arab countries with us."

This may be why the concept of this war as a multilateral task is so important to the White House. The Coalition of the Willing, Rumsfeld said Thursday, "includes countries from every part of the world, including a large number of Muslim-majority countries. Some are supporting the effort publicly; others are doing so privately. This is not a war against a people or a country," he said. "It is most certainly not a war against a religion. It is a war against a regime."

"While I believe deep down there's much more support for U.S. action than can be publicly expressed by many countries," the retired senior military officer tells Salon, "the very fact that they're not willing to join the parade to Baghdad is evidence of larger issues that the United States must deal with in the months and years ahead."

Even those nominally included in the coalition are bashing the war, however much President Bush thanks them for their support. Portugal was added to the coalition list on Thursday, but somebody forgot to send the country's president the talking points. "Given that there is no mandate from the United Nations, ... Portugal will not form part of the military coalition which will be built up," Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio said on Wednesday, according to Agence France-Presse. "We will, however, allow our allies transit rights, just as other countries have done, including some which have expressed strong opposition to any military action against Iraq."

On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher had moved Portugal, Singapore and Bulgaria from the column of those that didn't want to be named to those in the Coalition of the Willing. "This is not something one can do an accounting every day," Boucher said. "I'm not inclined to do a chart or a graph or anything or, you know, color-coded countries."

It might serve him well to do so, though, because Portugal isn't the only State Department-labeled "Willing" country having trouble deciding whether or not it's in the coalition. Angolan Radio Ecclesia reported on Wednesday that all 30 members of the Angolan National Assembly spoke against the war; M.P. Joao Melo said that U.S. behavior was "unilateralist" and "imperialist." Angola -- along with the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Iceland, Kuwait, Mongolia, Portugal, Rwanda, Singapore and Uganda, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and the Solomon Islands -- was added to the list on Thursday.

"We are not having any kind of involvement," a spokesman for the Eritrean Foreign Ministry said to AFP, while backing the U.S. action. Eritrea is also a member of the Coalition of the Willing.

Another significant difference between the coalitions of '91 and '03 is that the 36 total countries in the 1991 coalition -- including those that didn't send troops -- ponied up some serious coin. "While I believed the United States must be prepared to bear the brunt of the military burden," President George H.W. Bush wrote in "A World Transformed," his foreign policy memoir, "I thought it only just that other countries with interests at stake should contribute" -- if not soldiers then "substantial financial commitments."

Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on May 14, 1991, Eugene J. McAllister, assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, noted that "one of the most remarkable elements of the crisis was the unprecedented responsibility-sharing effort." McAllister said that other countries kicked in "$70 billion in total financial contributions," including $54.6 billion in military responsibility costs. Saudi Arabia pledged $16.8 billion, Kuwait $16 billion, Germany $6.6 billion, the United Arab Emirates $4 billion, and Japan $10.7 billion.

"We made a profit last time for heaven's sake," Korb says. "It didn't cost us a nickel." Conversely, this time "nobody's giving us any money, as far as I can see."

The administration has in fact said that the U.S. will be picking up the cost of this war. An appropriations request for somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 billion, for this initial phase, will be going up to Capitol Hill next week some time. Our current coalition partners' contributions -- both in terms of personnel and money -- are comparatively wanting.

Some of them include: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and the Ukraine have committed to sending chemical and biological warfare decontamination personnel. The U.S. military is allowed to use military bases and ports in Bahrain, Bulgaria, Kuwait, Qatar, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates; as well as airports in Croatia, Portugal, and the UAE. The coalition is being permitted the use of the airspace of Turkey, Bulgaria, Croatia, Jordan, and Romania. Iraqi exiles are at a base in Hungary. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, NATO ally Italy, and Turkey have agreed to continue to abide by previous military arrangements.

Fleischer also insisted that gauging the coalition based on the number of countries actually fighting missed a few key points. "That's only one slice of how to measure the world's involvement," Fleischer said.

The U.S. has "overwhelming worldwide political support," Fleischer said, from countries representing 1.18 billion people and $21.7 trillion in combined Gross Domestic Product. "Every major race, religion and ethnic group in the world is represented," he said. "The coalition includes nations from every continent on the globe. And for this, the president is grateful."

Fleischer did not mention that there are only two countries in the world where, according to polling, a majority of the population supports this war -- the U.S. and Israel -- whereas in almost every other country on this planet opposition to this action is rather conclusive. Polling indicates, for instance, that 95 percent of Macedonians oppose the war.

U.S. isolation from the rest of the world should not be overstated and broad-brushed, however. Vocal support for the U.S. position -- though not necessarily a pledge of any support -- has been voiced by the governments of former Soviet bloc countries Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Rumania, Slovakia and Slovenia, as well as the Balkan states of Albania and Macedonia.

And yet the sands of support are ever shifting. Take Croatia, once thought to be gung-ho for dismantling Saddam's regime, going so far as to sign a February statement backing the U.S. position on Iraq. While not officially listed in the Coalition of the Willing, the U.S. government let it be known that Croatia was helping by letting U.S. transport aircraft to refuel on its land.

But the Croatian government -- which Friday applied to join the European Union, where support for the war is a bit more sparse -- is now no longer truly on board, and there has been a minor diplomatic dust-up as a result. On Thursday, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic told Croatian radio in Zagreb that "this military operation has no legitimacy. The Republic of Croatia has said that it will support the operation only and exclusively if it comes as a result of a clear and unequivocal U.N. decision."

As a result, the U.S. ambassador, Lawrence G. Rossin, angrily chastised the government, telling a local newspaper, Globus, that the Croatian "government has decided to shirk its responsibility and play a reserved role."

The Croatian Foreign Ministry issued a mollifying -- some might say brown-nosing -- statement in reply, saying that Rossin's comments "should be viewed in the context of the current tense political circumstances. The Croatian government expects Croatian-US relations to continue developing in line with mutual interests and to the benefit of both nations." But, the statement said, "Croatia does not want to make taking a stance on the Iraqi crisis an issue of choosing sides between the US and the EU."

"I don't see the contradiction," Prime Minister Ivica Racan told reporters. "We will not join in military action unless it is approved by the United Nations, but we will offer certain forms of cooperation like France and Germany."

The moral of this tale is that being counted as a member of the Coalition of the Willing is essentially meaningless. The Bush administration is so hungry for international cover that it requires nothing of coalition partners other than the use of their names. While not being listed, Croatia will do just as much if not more than many actual coalition members. Yet it will face diplomatic consequences for its choice nonetheless. The important thing to the U.S. is not that Croatia allow U.S. transport plans to land and refuel there, but that it lend its name to the cause. Racan's confusion is understandable; he's operating according to a foreign policy where deeds are important, not mere "window-dressing," as Korb calls this all.

Asked if there will be repercussions for Croatia's refusal to join the Coalition of the Willing, Rossin told Globus, "I don't know what nature they will be, but there will be. That is inevitable."

Where there's a willing, there's a way.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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