The wishful and the willing

America is clinging to its 'coalition' as a comfort blanket in a cold world.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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With 70,000 US troops in southern Iraq, 1000 US Marines in the north, and another 120,000 troops apparently on their way, you may think that the latest Gulf War is a fairly American affair (with Britain playing its usual supporting role).

Not according to the Bush administration. President Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice says this is a coalition campaign, made up of ‘nearly 50 nations’. ‘To put this in perspective’, wrote Rice in the Wall Street Journal on 26 March 2003, ‘the combined population of coalition countries is approximately 1.23 billion people…. These countries are from every continent on the globe, representing every major race, religion and ethnicity in the world’ (1).

US secretary of state Colin Powell says ‘everybody was saying the United States is going it alone politically and militarily’, but America is simply ‘a nation that is part of [a] great effort to rid Iraq of its weapons’. According to Powell, there are 46 nations in the coalition (2).

Why is the world’s only superpower, which is doing the vast majority of the shocking and awing in Iraq, so desperate to talk up a ‘coalition of the willing’? Powell’s 46 nations include some of the least powerful and desperate states on Earth: Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda. There are nations that some may never have heard of: Palau, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia. In Europe, the war supporters are largely Central and Eastern states, including Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. From Western Europe, the coalition has the support of Britain, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands.

While there may be 46 apparently willing nations (or ‘nearly 50’, as Rice put it), only four of them have sent troops to fight in Iraq – America, Britain, Australia and Poland. Bulgaria is still undecided as to whether or not to commit troops, but says that if it does, it will send 100 rather than the 150 discussed with American officials. This coalition of the willing, the not-so-willing and the slightly-desperate is in stark contrast to the Cold War-style coalition of major powers that supported the first Gulf War, when 30 nations, rather than four, sent troops to fight in Iraq.

And as commentators have pointed out, even among the 46, claims of a tightly knit coalition don’t stand up to scrutiny. According to Salon, the coalition may be ‘No.1 in the administration’s talking points’, but ‘when some countries that the US counts as among the “willing” are continuing to criticise the US military moves against Iraq, [it raises] questions about how willing they really are’ (3).

It is not surprising that some are describing this coalition as an American PR exercise, an attempt by the Bush administration to rebut claims that this a unilateral war by ‘conning and coercing’ other nations into offering support – and no doubt there’s some truth to that. In our supposedly humanitarian age, no one wants to look like a selfish warmonger – even George ‘we will defend the national interest’ Bush.

But there is more to the claims of a coalition than PR bluff. The US elite’s efforts not to be seen to be going it alone on the international stage, instead clinging on to a questionable coalition, reveal a deeper sense of uncertainty within modern America.

In the run-up to the war, the Bush administration appeared desperate to avoid doing its own thing in Iraq. Behind their bellicose rhetoric, US leaders seem ever-more cautious about launching firm unilateral action in international affairs. So having failed to get UN agreement for the war in Iraq, Bush officials now seem to be taking comfort in a bogus coalition, claiming to be one nation among 46 rather than anything like an imperialist power taking selfish action against a weakened state.

This coalition-talk over Iraq points to America’s uncertainty about asserting itself and engaging its power around the world. Consider a subtle but striking shift that has taken place in US political circles in recent months. Officials have moved away from talking about ‘American power’ on the world stage, to ‘American primacy’. As the Financial Times reports, across US departments the word ‘primacy’ is taking the place of the word ‘power’, which is now seen as old-school and imperialistic.

The different meaning of these two words captures something of America’s view of itself. Where power is ‘strength or force exerted or capable of being exerted’, ‘the ability or capacity to perform or act effectively’, primacy is simply ‘the state of being first or foremost’. Where discussions of ‘American power’ suggested some knowledge of what America stood for and support for the assertion of its interests, the new-fangled focus on primacy is far more passive, almost suggesting that America is the boss by default rather than desire. Primacy, the state of being foremost, implies that America doesn’t really know what it represents in the modern world – it just knows that it’s at the top of the pile.

It is this elite crisis that drives America to make the nonsense coalition ‘its No.1 talking point’ over Iraq – not because it has any newfound respect for Poland, Bulgaria, Nicaragua (yes, that’s also on the list) or anywhere else, but because it is uncertain of itself and its own mission. Condoleezza Rice talks about the coalition having a combined population of 1.23 billion people because the isolated US elite is defensive about acting alone. Colin Powell says America is just ‘a nation’ among 46 because the US elite is uncertain of its unipolar position as the nation that dominates the world.

The ‘coalition of the willing’ is a comfort blanket for a US elite that appears increasingly unwilling to take decisive action on its own.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) The coalition, Condoleezza Rice, Wall Street Journal, 26 March 2003

(2) The coalition grows: interview with Colin Powell, Fox News, 24 March 2003

(3) Operation Inflate the Coalition, Salon, 21 March 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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