There are no double-blind studies in diplomacy, so we can never know for certain if a president’s strategy for a given crisis is wise or if a different one might have worked better. Occasionally, however, history throws up a comparison that is so apt that it can serve as a pretty reasonable test. If, for instance, you want to know whether the collapse of George W. Bush’s efforts to gain international support for war on Iraq is the inevitable result of difficult circumstances and intransigent allies or a fundamentally flawed strategy, consider the following comparison. For months, the administration has been trying to gain permission from the government of Turkey, a NATO ally, to use that country as a base of operations for an Iraq war. In 1999, the Clinton administration asked the same thing of Greece, also a NATO ally, in the run-up to the war in Kosovo. In both countries, over 90 percent of the public opposed the war in question. Both countries also legitimately worried about being destabilized by a flood of refugees—for Turks, Kurds from Iraq; for Greeks, Albanians from Kosovo. And both countries were being asked to take part in wars against co-religionists—Serbs, like Greeks, are predominantly Orthodox Christians; Iraqis, like Turks, are mostly Muslim. Yet the Clinton administration succeeded in getting Greek support, while the Bush administration has so far failed to bring the Turks on board. Indeed, the Turks have refused even to commit to allowing U.S. planes to fly over Turkish airspace, a potentially serious blow to U.S. war plans. What explains the different outcomes in Turkey and Greece? After all, it’s not as if getting Turkey to support a war on Iraq is an inherently harder sell than getting Greeks to support war in Kosovo. If anything, the opposite is true. Public opinion is actually more anti-American in Greece than in Turkey. The Turkish government has always been the more cooperative, thanks to the strong influence of its pro-U.S. military. Turkey never threatened to eject NATO bases from its soil, as Greece did in the 1980s, and Turkey cooperates much more closely with America’s ally Israel than does Greece. Moreover, Greeks sympathized openly with the Serbs who controlled Kosovo, whereas Turks have little sympathy for the Arabs who run Iraq.
Another possible explanation is that the Clinton administration’s diplomats were more silver-tongued than the Bush administration’s. There may be something to this. Certainly, members of the Turkish parliament who voted against their own government in defiance of Washington have said that they did so in part as a reaction to the brusque demands of some members of the Bush team, especially Vice President Dick Cheney. On the other hand, when it comes to smooth diplomacy, Colin Powell is no slouch. And the Clinton team included plenty of people, such as Richard Holbrooke, willing to throw elbows.
The decisive difference, I think, has to do with the basic war strategies of the two administrations. Unlike Clinton, who acted through an existing alliance, NATO, Bush from the beginning has rejected relying on existing international bodies in favor of waging war through a “coalition of the willing.” That approach, however, makes it harder to win over reluctant partners because it puts their elected officials in a less tenable position. Turkish politicians are essentially being asked to defy popular will in order to support the dictates of a more powerful country, the United States. Greek politicians were asked to defy their voters not for the sake of relations with the United States—if that were the case, they’d never have done it—but in support of NATO, an alliance in which Greece has a vote, and therefore power.
The difference is crucial. Alliances give less powerful countries some feeling of control over the military power of larger partners. That, in turn, gives the lesser country’s elected officials reason to support (and cover for supporting) the alliance’s majority decisions—decisions usually orchestrated by the big boys. This largely explains why France supported war in Kosovo but balks at war in Iraq. (It’s not just a question of location.) While French politicians are a bit keener these days to throw their weight around thanks, among other things, to waning French influence in an enlarging European Union, France is still pretty much the same prickly pain-in-the-ass country it was five years ago. Then, as now, France was worried about attacking a criminal regime (Serbia) with which it enjoyed economic and historical ties. Then, as now, it was highly suspicious of U.S. military power and had ways to check that power—in Kosovo through its vote in NATO, in Iraq through its seat on the U.N. Security Council. It even has the same president, Jacques Chirac. Yet Clinton won Chirac’s support, while Bush has gotten only his veto threat. Why? At least in part because, from Day 1, Bush has said he’s going act as he sees fit regardless of how the United Nations votes. By so doing, he not only put Chirac in the same political position as he did the Turkish MPs; worse, he created a constituency for France’s view of the world, that American hegemony is the real problem.
Rather than make the most of the extraordinary support the world offered the United States after 9/11, the Bush administration seems almost willfully to have squandered it. In the months after Sept. 11, the administration withdrew from one international agreement after another, from the ABM treaty to the International Criminal Court. It refused NATO’s offer of help in Afghanistan, eventually accepting some troops from NATO-member countries but no shared NATO decision-making. Though German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder braved a no-confidence vote to win parliamentary approval to put German combat troops in Afghanistan, he received little thanks from Bush. Nor was he seriously consulted as Bush formulated his Iraq policy, despite (or perhaps because of) growing signs of German discomfort with that policy. Cut out of the loop, Schröder then began to exploit the anti-Iraq war backlash among German voters and become a fierce opponent of Bush on Iraq.
Why did the administration stiff-arm NATO? Partly because administration hawks wanted to act unilaterally in order to lay a precedent for the new hegemonic military doctrine that the Pentagon would later codify. There is also a related belief, widespread within the administration, that any restraint on the U.S. military’s freedom of action is unacceptable. It is certainly the case that trying to get 19 NATO allies to agree on a military plan can be frustrating, as Gen. Wesley Clark, who ran NATO’s Kosovo campaign, describes in his book Waging Modern War. “We read your book,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Clark shortly after 9/11, “And no one is going to tell us where we can or can’t bomb.” (Alas, they didn’t read it very carefully.)
No alliance comes without compromises, even a “coalition of the willing.” Desperate to win Ankara’s support, for instance, the Bush administration agreed to allow Turkish troops to march into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. That compromise sparked a Kurdish threat to attack the Turks if they tried. Yet even with this inordinately generous concession, plus billions of dollars in promised aid, the Bush administration couldn’t get Turkey on board. By contrast, the Clinton administration didn’t have to offer big bribes and concessions to win Romania’s and Bulgaria’s support for the war in Kosovo, even though most voters there opposed the war. Instead, the administration merely noted that if those countries ever wanted to join NATO—and they did—they’d better get behind the war.
Rather than dismissing NATO—and possibly crippling it permanently—what if the Bush administration had brought the alliance into the later stages of the Afghanistan war so that the political leaders of France and Germany could have basked in the glory of having helped vanquish the Taliban? And what if, instead of asserting publicly for months America’s right to attack Saddam unilaterally and then turning on its heels and asking the United Nations for a vote, the Bush administration had simply gone to its European allies and asked for their support in the disarming of Iraq (perhaps hinting behind the scenes of our willingness to use force unilaterally if we didn’t get their support)? Might it have been possible, in the afterglow of a successful Afghan campaign fought with NATO, to convince alliance members to agree to enforce any new U.N. resolutions against Iraq? Might it have been easier to pass a second U.N. resolution, or at least get majority support in the Security Council, if it were NATO calling for the vote, and not just the United States, Great Britain, and Spain? Indeed, would such a resolution have even been necessary? And if it were Brussels, not Washington, demanding that Turkey support an invasion of Iraq, would Turkey, desperate to join the European Union, have dared refuse?
Of course, we’ll never know the answer to these questions. History doesn’t do controlled experiments. But we do know that George H.W. Bush worked sincerely and energetically to put together an international war coalition and succeeded; Bill Clinton worked sincerely and energetically to put together an international war coalition and succeeded; and George W. Bush worked grudgingly and sporadically to do the same and failed.
History will almost certainly judge Chirac and other European politicians harshly for blocking what could have been a unified front against Saddam—especially if the war is swift, casualties are low, and new evidence emerges of Saddam’s brutality and possession of weapons of mass destruction. Still, the excuses now being made by the Bush administration and its allies (“The French are perfidious!” “The Turks will be sorry!”) have a certain dog-ate-my-homework quality—of blaming others for a failure that was equally the result of their own desultory efforts. Even as his strategy was failing, the president recently remarked that “we really don’t need anybody’s permission” to invade Iraq. In a strict sense, of course, that’s true. But his words suggest that he still doesn’t fully understand—as virtually all his recent predecessors did—the value of formal alliances in fighting wars and in keeping the peace afterward. America should have been able to invade Iraq with an alliance, or at least a broad coalition. Instead, all we have is a gang.