How Goes the Coalition?

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, must have found Oct. 26 a gratifying day. That Friday morning his column, under the heading We Are All Alone, expressed sharp criticism of what Mr. Friedman considers to be footdragging by most members of the antiterrorist coalition.

That evening, Jim Lehrer, proprietor of the PBS nightly NewsHour, asked Mark Shields and David Brooks, the commentators who provide this program with a weekly analysis of the news, if Mr. Friedman was right. They said he was and warmly praised his work overall.

Questions about the effectiveness of the coalition are not the only ones raised by the antiterrorist campaign, nor the most important. Questions about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and about the alienation of much of the Muslim world from North Africa to Indonesia are ethically more insistent. All the same, Mr. Friedman touched on a sensitive issue, and although the points he made need serious qualification, they can serve to locate a discussion of just how well the coalition is working.

To begin with, Mr. Friedman argued with heavy sarcasm that Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, India, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have, with an eye on their own interests, been giving the coalition only stingy and conditioned support. My fellow Americans, he wrote, I hate to say this, but except for the good old Brits, we’re all alone.

When Jim Lehrer interviewed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld during the NewsHour on Nov. 7, he asked what the secretary thought of Mr. Friedman’s column. After a judicious pause, Mr. Rumsfeld replied: He’s not wrong, in the sense that each country in the world has to make up its own mind as to how concerned it is about this problem.... Most countries understand that the danger’s big, it’s serious, it’s real.

In other words, the members of the coalition have been doing what nations always doexercising their sovereignty. That means that the degrees of cooperation with the United States have varied. For example, British forces joined the Americans when the air strikes against Afghanistan began on Oct. 7. Since then the French and Germans have asked to join the military operations.

But as Mr. Rumsfeld said, each nation has to look at the circumstances in its own neighborhood. The aid even from Muslim states is not negligible. The United States has bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Pakistan, and the permission to use these countries’ territories is itself a considerable concession. The heads of those nations are sitting nervously upon potentially explosive Muslim populations. If a few imams give fiery anti-American sermons some Friday, there may be riots before the day is out.

Mr. Friedman said the unilateralist foreign policy pursued by the Bush administration before Sept. 11 is at least partly to blame for what he sees as the indifference of the nations he called free-riders in our coalition. He is correct, but President Bush’s dismissal of the Kyoto climate treaty is no excuse for lukewarm support of the coalition. In any case, the president has been modifying his earlier posture of readiness to withdraw from the rest of the world.

The coalition’s members are also troubled by the president’s inclination to blow the struggle against terrorism into something like a massive war. All the same, in his speeches, particularly in his address to Congress on Sept. 20, Mr. Bush has taken care to make important distinctions: The United States respects the people of Afghanistan. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. In his address to the United Nations on Nov. 10, the president made his best case yet for supporting the coalition against terrorism. Unfortunately, he did not stress strongly enough the U.S. commitment to avoiding civilian casualties. It is these casualties that could undermine the coalition in Muslim countries and increase support for the Taliban.

The Taliban retreat from Kabul will both strengthen and challenge the coalition. On the one hand, nothing strengthens a coalition like victories. On the other hand, the international coalition must now quickly find an Afghan coalition that can govern without intertribal bloodshed.

For the ultimate success of the campaign, international cooperation is indispensable, because the terrorist networks are spread across 60 nations. The coalition is not an association as formal as an alliance, but it must be held together. In an age of global interconnectedness, even a superpower cannot behave like some sheriff at high noon. If the coalition is sluggish, that’s bad luck. If the United States tries to go it alone in the campaign against terrorism, that will be more than a misfortune. It will be a perilous mistake.

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