The Coalition of the Billing -- First Past Due Notice

One year ago, commentators were singing the praises of the "coalition of the willing," believing it to be the international relations equivalent of sliced bread.

One year ago, commentators were singing the praises of the "coalition of the willing," believing it to be the international relations equivalent of sliced bread.  No need to work through formal structures, worry about alliances and interests, they advised. The United States could pick and choose among a gaggle of smaller nations offering capabilities and support.  Unilateral action, multilateral veneer.

Usually, "coalition of the willing" was uttered in the same breath as "New Europe." Remember New Europe? That supposedly permanent collection of pro-American regimes in Europe that would always respond to Washington's call? New Europe doesn't look so formidable now, not with the results of the Spanish elections and the resignation of the Polish prime minister.

No, we are back to good old national interests as the basis for future coalitions. Countries in Europe or elsewhere will ally with the United States if they believe it serves their interests to do so.

And so we come to Iraq, where according to all reports the current coalition is being sorely tested.  I borrow the title of this piece from my colleague Peter Singer (over at the Brookings Institution), who has used the phrase in recent days in discussing the growing role of private military companies in providing personnel for service in Iraq.

I don't mean to suggest that mercenary motives alone explain why other states have joined in the coalition. (Although they cannot be discounted, either. Opposition is growing in Poland in part because many Poles thought their companies, especially those with experience in dealing with Soviet-era technology, might get a larger piece of the postwar reconstruction pie.) But the coalition is beginning to fray, because the costs of continued participation are beginning to rise. And that has an impact on how long popular support will remain in favor of continued participation.

The Australian opposition leader Mark Latham has indicated he will emulate Spain's new prime minister if elected and withdraw Australian forces. In recent polls, Labor is outpolling John Howard's conservative coalition but, significantly, Latham's personal standing dropped after making that pledge. Right now, most Australians are prepared to "see things through" in Iraq but that attitude could change.  Already, Thailand‚s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has sent signals that he is reconsidering his country's deployment. Kazakhstan's Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbayev has announced his country will not renew its participation; New Zealand and Singapore are also out.

It is very true that, so far, we are talking about dozens or hundreds of soldiers.  There are some 24,000 non-U.S., non-British forces currently in service in Iraq, and most will remain on duty. But many of these troops are engineers or otherwise engaged in reconstruction efforts--they are not front-line combat soldiers. And there is increased grumbling that fighting insurgents is not what these countries signed up for.

And given growing dissatisfaction with the way the U.S. is conducting military operations-even reportedly among members of the British command (British news reports have called attention to comments that "America's aggressive methods were causing friction among allied commanders" and that there is a growing sense of "unease and frustration" among UK military leaders), there hasn't been a real rush of volunteers from other states to provide extra, additional forces.

Ah, the halcyon days of August 2003, when so many members of Congress were blithely predicting that the U.S. could expect other countries to provide additional "boots on the ground" so that American soldiers could go home!

And Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, continues to insist that "internationalizing" the occupation in Iraq can produce results.  This week, he wrote:

"We also need to renew our effort to attract international support in the form of boots on the ground to create a climate of security in Iraq. We need more troops and more people who can train Iraqi troops and assist Iraqi police. "

It's not going to happen. And so it's time to face realities.

Reality number one: no other country - not even Britain - is going to provide more combat forces. 

Reality number two: insurgencies do not need large numbers to be effective.  All they require is that a majority of the population to acquiesce, allowing them to take action. So to defeat an insurgency, you must crush it, co-opt it or cut it away from the larger society.  All three of these options require more forces and more funds, and even then, there is no guarantee of success. They also extract political costs as well.

So what are the remaining options? One is to adopt the John Paul Vann strategy from Vietnam--dispense with the "fiction" that the Governing Council represents a functioning body and simply recreate an Iraqi state from the ground up.

Another is to let the Governing Council adopt the policies taken by the government of Sierra Leone in 1995--contract directly with mercenaries to provide security and training.  (With the help of foreign professionals, the Sierra Leonese government put down insurgents, trained its military and was able to stabilize the country in order to hold democratic elections in 1996.  It was only after the contract expired in 1997 and the mercenaries departed--in keeping with a UN-brokered plan--that, four months later, the government was overthrown.)

But let's abandon any remaining fantasies about a "coalition" that is willing and able to take on America's burdens in Iraq.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.