Distributed February 2003
Copyright ©2003 by William O. Beeman

Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 650 Words

William O. Beeman

‘Coalition of the unwilling’ falters as European leaders battle populace

In America, the president stays in office for four years unless impeached. In a parliamentary system, the prime minister can be removed anytime on a vote of no confidence. If the United States is in the middle of an attack on Baghdad when an ally suddenly changes leadership, the war effort will revert, by default, to the unilateral action Americans fear.

President Bush has spoken of the “coalition of the willing” that will pursue the war on Iraq. This neat bit of rhetoric is designed to convince Americans, wary of unilateral action in the Middle East, that we are not alone in our support of the war effort.

However, the “coalition of the willing” should be labeled the “coalition of the unwilling,” or the “coalition of willing prime ministers.” The Bush administration has obviously confused the support of selected national leaders with the support of the populations they govern. This is a conceptual error that is likely to create chaos if the war effort moves forward.

The United States is the quintessential nation state. One of the flaws in American foreign policy is to imagine that all other political entities in the world are like us. The Bush administration invokes the term “democracy” as if it were an elemental concept, like “oxygen” or “water.” However, democracy, is more complex. Like ice cream, it comes in many flavors, and most of them involve a far more fragile relationship between leaders and the public they govern than in the United States.

In America, one can frequently hear people voicing support for the president even if one disagrees with him, or failed to vote for him. He stays in office for four years unless impeached – and impeachment, as the nation learned during the Clinton administration, is an extremely difficult process. By contrast, in a parliamentary system, the prime minister can be removed on a vote of no confidence; the term is never absolutely fixed.

The Bush administration counts Britain and Spain and Turkey as part of its coalition. However, the simple fact is that however supportive the prime ministers of those nations, the people are solidly set against the war.

Tony Blair bravely defends military action against Iraq, but saw 121 members of his own Labor Party vote against him on February 26, in what The Guardian called “the biggest revolt ever.” There is no question that Blair was politically wounded.

José Maria Aznar of Spain is also a supporter of the war, and on that basis Washington also includes Spain in the coalition. However, in a recent poll in the daily El Mundo, 74 percent of Spain’s citizens expressed opposition to the war with Iraq, even if the United Nations passes a second resolution.

Turkey is a crucial member of the coalition, and Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, who is himself somewhat of a figurehead leader for his party, is supportive of American efforts to attack Iraq, establishing military efforts on Turkish soil. However, the Turkish parliament is in full revolt. The vote supporting U.S. military operations in Turkey has been postponed until March 1, and polls show that 90 percent of the Turkish population is opposed to the Iraq conflict.

In this manner the coalition can be seen to be extraordinarily fragile affair, held together with spit and bailing wire – and, it would seem, a lot of money.

Jeb Bush, the Florida governor and presidential brother, was recently in Spain. Aside from gaffes, such as calling Prime Minister Aznar “Anzar” and referring to Spain as a “republic,” recalling the days of dictator Franco, Gov. Bush reportedly let it be known that there was “a lot of money” to be made in the Iraqi conflict.

Turkey, for its part, is still negotiating with the United States over exactly how many billions Washington will have to cough up before it agrees to accept U.S. military operations on Turkish soil.

However, one thing is clear, the close support American presidents enjoy with the American people is not a property of the other democracies in the coalition of the willing. These leaders could be toppled tomorrow. If the United States is in the middle of an attack on Baghdad when that happens, the war effort will revert, by default, to the unilateral action Americans fear.

William O. Beeman teaches anthropology and is director of Middle East studies at Brown University. He has conducted research in the region for more than 30 years.

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