The Persian king Xerxes summoned his vassals to war against Athens in 426 B.C. thus: “… we shall bring all mankind under our yoke, alike those who are guilty and those who are innocent of doing us wrong. If you wish to please me, do as follows: when I announce the time for the army to meet together, hasten to the muster with a good will, every one of you; and know that to the man who brings with him the most gallant array I will give great gifts …”
Xerxes did a splendid job of browbeating scores of satraps and vassal kingdoms into sending troops to join his expedition against Athens, which the Persian emperor warned was a dangerous, lawless, insolent state that threatened the civilized world. Unfortunately for Xerxes, his invasion of Greece proved a military disaster.
President George W. Bush’s crusade against Iraq was just the opposite: it managed to convoke only an embarrassingly skimpy assemblage of vassal states, but the invasion proved a smashing military success, if a subsequent disaster.
Now, over a year later, many of America’s 32 allies, tributaries, supplicants, and camp followers that sent a total of 22,000 troops to Iraq are wishing they had never become involved and are seeking escape or giving thanks they are well out of the growing carnage in Mesopotamia.
For many of them, involvement in Iraq became a political poisoned chalice that enraged voters and threatened to undo governments from Tokyo to Tegucigalpa. What initially seemed like an easy, risk-free way of currying favor with Washington and obtaining more foreign aid, cheap oil, or White House photo ops has become a grave electoral liability, a diplomatic minefield, and a nightmare filled with car bombs and head-chopping fanatics.
Originally trumpeted by the Bush administration as the Coalition of the Willing, the grab-bag of military contingents dispatched at enormous U.S. expense was widely viewed across the world as a fig leaf to cover naked Anglo-American aggression against Iraq.
The incessant repetition of the coalition mantra by the White House, Pentagon, and the U.S. mainstream media was designed to portray the occupation as a humanitarian mission instead of what it really was, an old-fashioned imperial adventure that violated international law and the UN Charter. “Coalition of the shilling” was a more accurate sobriquet. Never has so much bought so little.
Only two nations sent militarily meaningful numbers of troops to Iraq: the U.S., 140,000 and Britain, 9,000. Add to this Anglo total roughly 40,000 U.S. and British-paid mercenaries, known in Orwello-Pentagonese as “civilian contractors.”
George W. Bush and Tony Blair are currently reaping a political whirlwind for the unnecessary war they started in Iraq. A majority of Americans and Britons now believe the war was a terrible mistake. Yet in another shameless political whitewash, an official inquiry in Britain just cleared Prime Minister Blair of any culpability, concluding that everyone, and thus no one, was responsible for “intelligence failures.” Most Britons greeted this fraud with the scorn and contempt it deserves. Blair’s fortunes are still cloudy as a result of Iraq, but he looks likely to hang on for now. President Bush remains on more solid political ground, to the astonishment of the outside world that cannot understand why Americans have not reacted more angrily to being duped into a bloody, expensive fiasco.
Other contributors of troops to the Iraq occupation are also feeling intensifying heat from their voters. The example of Spain is a vivid reminder to supporters of Bush’s Iraq crusade of what can happen to leaders who lose touch with their people. Spain’s hard-line conservative leader, Jose Aznar, ardently backed Bush on ideological grounds, while over 90 percent of Spaniards bitterly opposed their nation’s dispatch of troops to Iraq.
The bombs that killed 200 people in Madrid just before the March elections did not terrorize Spaniards into quitting Iraq, as enraged American neocons falsely claimed. This attack crystallized public anger over the misbegotten Iraq expedition. Spain’s new Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Zapatero, made good on campaign pledges by immediately joining the Coalition of the Unwilling by withdrawing troops from Iraq, a move that was wildly popular in Spain. Honduras and the Dominican Republic followed suit.
Italy’s conservative prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has also come under intensive popular pressure to pull his nation’s 3,000 troops out of Iraq. Over 80 percent of Italians oppose military involvement there. But ideological solidarity between Berlusconi’s coalition partners on Italy’s neo-fascist and neo-Mussolinist far Right and the Pentagon’s neocons is helping keep Italy committed, though doing so has caused Berlusconi’s popularity to drop sharply.
After none of the fabled WMD were found, Poland’s former prime minister expressed grave doubts over keeping 2,460 troops in Iraq, but elected, in spite of intense domestic opposition, to maintain them until the middle of next year, a decision likely encouraged by lavish stipends from Washington. The Netherlands has announced it will withdraw its 1,100-man contingent by mid-2005.
Norway, New Zealand, and Thailand, all smarting from public protests, will pull their token units out of Iraq by this September. Ukraine, which sent 1,600 soldiers to forestall U.S. criticism of its egregious political corruption, is considering a pullout. By contrast, South Korea is grudgingly sending 3,700 more men, in spite of violent objections by its people and the beheading of a hapless Korean hostage.
Australia has only 250 men left in Iraq, but even this small number has become a major issue in its forthcoming election. Prime Minister John Howard is looking vulnerable on Iraq as a majority of Australians oppose his Middle Eastern adventure. In a memorably piquant Aussie phrase, antiwar Labor Party challenger Mark Latham described Howard and the other coalition leaders that sent troops to Iraq as “a conga line of suck-holes.”
The rest of the coalition is an opera bouffe collection of tiny states that sent token units to Iraq to curry favor in Washington. These include such martial titans as El Salvador (361 men), Denmark (420), Hungary (300), Mongolia (160), Lithuania (118), Georgia (70), Estonia (31), Kazakhstan (25), Macedonia (37), Moldova (50), Latvia (120), Slovakia (102), Azerbaijan (150), the Philippines (51), and Canada (maybe 31, which Ottawa claims are not really there). Most voters in these nations opposed sending troops to Iraq. Two exceptions: rent-a-states Romania and Bulgaria, which sent 700 and 480 troops respectively, in hopes of getting into NATO. The last Romanian military triumph was protecting German flanks at Stalingrad.
The only truly voluntary contributors—i.e., not bribed or bullied—were the Netherlands, in thanks for aid in World War II; Denmark, for obscure ideological reasons having to do with either right-wing politics or herring; and tiny Albania, in recognition of America’s salvation of Kosovo’s Albanians from Serb ethnic cleansing and massacres. Further strengthening the U.S.-Albania axis, Tirana’s neo-communist regime just announced that it will send 200 more soldiers to Iraq.
Hungary and other Eastern European states felt a deep of gratitude to the U.S. for their liberation from Soviet rule, though helping Bush’s occupation of Iraq may not be the best way to express their rapture over freedom from imperialism. Notably absent are any Arab nations.
The most interesting contributor is Japan, with 240 “non-combat” troops. This tokenism is the small price Japan pays for America’s security umbrella, which protects it from China and North Korea. It is also a subtle way for Junichiro Koizumi’s conservative government to begin acclimatizing Japanese to overseas commitments of their “self-defense” forces under the guise of peacekeeping and good works; Japan’s small but expensive armed forces are constitutionally forbidden to operate beyond the home islands. But recent Upper House elections in Japan went heavily against Koizumi’s LDP, in good part because of voter anger over sending troops to Iraq. This unease will go critical once Japanese troops are killed and wounded.
The Philippines just announced it would withdraw its 51 soldiers from Iraq after the kidnapping of one of its civilian workers, igniting fury in Washington. Other coalition members are trying to figure out how to get their men out of Iraq, which was sold them as a peaceful, money-making occupation—without incurring Washington’s wrath.
Most of the Coalition of the Willing were promised cheap Iraqi oil by Washington, or oil concessions. But as resistance forces sabotage Iraq’s oil pipelines, these promises are coming up short, and plundering Iraq’s wealth is turning out to be a challenge.
Ironically, far from building a powerful coalition to garrison Iraq under U.S. command, what President Bush has really managed to do is to provide formerly rudderless left-wing parties around the globe with a red-hot new cause with which to rally and electrify their supporters. At the same time, he has made himself the most detested man in world affairs. Those conservative governments that continue to support him and the U.S. occupation of Iraq do so at their peril and are becoming alienated from their own voters.
In short, Mr. Bush has done more to electrify the international Left and give it a sense of common purpose than anyone since Che Guevara. That’s true coalition building—just not the kind Washington had in mind.
Eric S. Margolis is the author of War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan and Asia, and a columnist, commentator, and war correspondent.