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The great coalition debate rages. On the one hand are those who argue that the key to winning this war is to establish as broad a coalition as possible. "To succeed in the present conflict, it is essential that we repeat the coalition-building of the gulf conflict," writes former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.

In the other camp are those who say that we should be making whatever bilateral deals we need with the most important countries neighboring the Afghan theater of war -- with Uzbekistan for air bases, with Pakistan for cutting off support to the Taliban -- but that the fetish of adding partners to our coalition list will simply paralyze decision-making and prevent us from doing what we have to do: defeat the enemy.

This is not just academic debate. It pits the State Department against the Defense Department. The diplomats at State want to make friends. That is their job. The commanders in the Pentagon want to win the war. That is their job. And too many "friends" can get in the way of getting it done.

Scowcroft's view, expressed in an Oct. 16 Washington Post op-ed, is important not just because of his distinguished service as soldier and adviser, but because he has just been appointed chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and thus will be influential in shaping the conduct of the new war.

Scowcroft begins his advocacy of coalition-as-centerpiece by defending our decision in the last war, when he was national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, to stop the Gulf War before going to Baghdad and toppling Saddam. Why? Because of the coalition. "Our Arab allies," he said, "would have deserted us, creating an atmosphere of hostility to the United States in the region."

Creating? We did not go to Baghdad and yet, the hostility toward us is such that it inspired the worst massacre of Americans in our history.

Much of that hostility derives from that fateful decision to leave Saddam in power in Baghdad in deference to our coalition partners, because we then had to spend a decade containing him with sanctions that have clearly hurt the Iraqi people and inflamed anti-Americanism in the region. Bin Laden himself, in giving reasons for his jihad on America, never fails to cite the starving and bombing of Iraq.

"In addition, the situation of the United States' being in hostile occupation of an Arab land might well have spawned scores of Osama bin Ladens," Scowcroft said. Good grief.

What spawned the real bin Laden was the infidels' "occupation" of Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, the holiest cities in Islam. And why are American soldiers still there 10 years after the Gulf War? It is precisely because we stopped short of Baghdad, allowing the very regime threatening Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to remain in power, that we need to retain an American garrison in the region.

Thus, if we wish to make a "why do they hate us" inventory, we have from bin Laden's oeuvre that the gravest U.S. offenses are the very policies -- the American military presence in Arabia and the sanctions on Iraq -- that are the direct consequences of our failure to finish off Saddam in 1991.

And why didn't we finish him off? In order to accommodate the opposition of the coalition. And yet, Scowcroft now offers "a coalition, a broad coalition" as the key, the model, for success in the current war.

Coalitions are a means and not an end. We did not go to Baghdad and, over time, the coalition fell apart anyway. In the end, we lost both the coalition and our ultimate objective -- a defanged Iraq.

Clear thinking on coalitions comes from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He speaks of "shifting" and "floating" coalitions. You take friends where you find them and when you need them. But in the end, we decide. In contrast, the wall-to-wall coalitions that Scowcroft is trumpeting lead to lowest-common-denominator decision-making. They hold us back, as in the Gulf War, from our ultimate objective: attacking not just the manifestation of evil, but the root of the evil, the state sponsors behind it.

One can have sympathy and respect for those who, in the crucible of the moment in 1991, made the wrong decision. But 10 years later, how can one refuse to acknowledge that the decision was wrong? How can one present what was ultimately a failure -- Saddam looms, sitting on tons of anthrax -- as an example of success, demanding emulation today?

Washington Post Writers Group

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