Why the U.S. Needs its Friends

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In the days after Sept. 11, President Bush hit the phones looking for help from his friends in the war on terror. Britain, Russia, France Germany, Canada and China all pledged their support. It looked like W would conduct the war on terror in much the same way his father ran the war in the Gulf, assembling an international coalition and consensus for the fight.

Five months later, the administration's message to the world has changed: America no longer particularly cares what you think; we will do whatever we deem necessary, alone if necessary. European leaders who balked at President Bush's naming of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the focus of Phase 2 of his campaign have been given a blunt warning that the U.S. is ready to act alone if they don't want to get on board. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that the U.S. was not interested in making decisions within a grand NATO-style coalition; it would pick its targets and then pick its allies.

The new megaphone diplomacy has prompted both friend and foe to challenge Washington's direction. They question the U.S. assessment of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. They complain that while the U.S. is ignoring the causes of terrorism, dealing only with the symptoms. Plainly, there's no longer a global consensus around the war against terrorism. But that doesn't appear to trouble the Bush administration.

Afghanistan as an enabler

Afghanistan has revised the administration's estimate of its own ability to project power. The speedy and relatively cost-free dispatching of the Taliban has whet the appetite of Washington's hawks for decisive action, not just against terrorist groups but also against hostile regimes in possession or pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. After all, most of the fears that accompanied the Afghan campaign — a worldwide Muslim backlash, the collapse of the Musharraf regime in Pakistan, a winter quagmire and humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan — proved to be unfounded.

Afghanistan may be less of a poster child for U.S. unilateralism than the hawks would like. Sure, the Taliban regime was crushed in a matter of weeks, allowing Afghans to renegotiate their future and destroying a sanctuary that had trained and harbored thousands of terrorists from around the world. And the U.S. certainly fought smart, from the skies and via proxies on the ground, putting relatively small numbers of its own personnel into harm's way.

But the effect of the campaign was mostly to disperse the Taliban. Most of their top commanders remain at large, and even the thousands of fighters that surrendered simply went home to sign up with local warlords bidding for power. While hundreds, or even thousands of al-Qaeda loyalists may have been captured or killed in battle, thousands more — including many of the network's top leaders and operatives — appear to have evaded capture. The Pentagon would be the first to confirm that Phase 1 is, in fact, far from over. And the next stage, taking the fight to other countries, may very well require help from just those countries that the U.S. is currently cutting out of the loop.

Targeting Saddam

Iraq, plainly, is being lined up for eventual U.S. military action, not immediately but probably sometime during President Bush's tenure. The last time the U.S. went to war with Iraq, it was joined on the battlefield by most of the NATO allies and even much of the Arab League. This time around, it can't even count on the support of the perennially faithful British. No matter, say the hawks — the awesome military technology and iron political will displayed in Afghanistan make it possible for America to do the job alone. And that in itself will persuade the allies to fall into lockstep.

Perhaps, but perhaps not.

Iraq is a far more formidable enemy than the Taliban. There is no opposition force inside the country equivalent to the Northern Alliance with a proven ability to take and hold territory from the regime. And as much as Saddam's neighbors would like to see him gone, they're more fearful of the forces of instability that could be unleashed by a direct assault.

If the objective is a stable and low-cost regime change in Iraq, it's a lot easier to imagine achieving that on the basis of a consensus between the U.S. and such key stakeholders as Russia, France, Turkey, Iran and Iraq's Arab neighbors than by the U.S. acting alone. Technology may have kept America's casualty count in Afghanistan to an almost implausible minimum, but technology is no substitute for friends willing to fight and allies willing to isolate an enemy. And the posture being adopted in Washington right now is doing little to swell the ranks of either.