White House Notebook: Many Willing, But Few Are Able
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 25, 2003; Page A07
There must have been shock in Baghdad and awe in Paris last week when the White House announced the news that Palau had joined the "coalition of the willing."
Palau, an island group of nearly 20,000 souls in the North Pacific, has much to contribute. It has some of the world's best scuba diving, delectable coconuts and tapioca. One thing Palau cannot contribute, however, is military support: It does not have a military.
"It's rather symbolic," said Hersey Kyota, Palau's ambassador to Washington, of his country's willingness to be listed in the 46-member coalition of the willing engaged in the Iraq war. Kyota said the president of Palau, which depends on the U.S. military for its security, on a visit to Washington, "thought it was a good idea to write a letter of support, so he did." Kyota said Palau gamely offered its harbors and airports to the effort, but the offer was graciously declined, as Palau is nowhere near Iraq.
Palau is one of six unarmed nations in the coalition, along with Costa Rica, Iceland, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and the Solomon Islands. Then there's Afghanistan.
Asked if Iceland would be supplying troops, ambassador Helgi Agustsson gave a hearty Scandinavian guffaw. "Of course not -- we have no military," he said. "That is a good one, yes." In fact, Agustsson added, "we laid down weapons sometime in the 14th century," when the Icelandic military consisted largely of Vikings in pointy helmets. The true nature of Iceland's role in the coalition of the willing is "reconstruction and humanitarian assistance," Agustsson said, adding that this has not been requested yet.
Therein lies the peculiarity of the coalition of the willing. Some on the White House list, such as Turkey, have been critical of the war and uncooperative. Many of those on the list, such as the unarmed nations above, will do far less than countries such as Germany, which adamantly opposed the war but is defending Turkey from Iraqi missiles. To join the coalition of the willing, a nation need do nothing more than offer "political support" -- essentially, allow its name to be put on the list.
Administration officials have furnished the list to demonstrate, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld argued, that the current coalition "is larger than the coalition that existed during the Gulf War in 1991." But that 34-member group was an actual military coalition, with all members providing troops, aircraft, ships or medics.
By that standard, there are only about a half dozen members of the coalition in the current war. In addition to the 250,000 or so U.S. troops, there are 45,000 from Britain and about 2,000 from Australia. Denmark and Spain have sent a small number of troops, though not, apparently, for ground combat.
Still, it's not certain exactly who is participating. Poland, for example, had originally said it would help only in a non-combat role. But the country acknowledged some of its commandos had participated in the attack when the Reuters news agency produced photographs of masked Polish soldiers taking prisoners, scrawling graffiti on a portrait of Saddam Hussein and posing with U.S. Navy SEALs with an American flag.
Despite the contributions of Poland and the others, the firepower in the Iraq war is basically all American and British. The other countries involved spend a combined $25 billion a year on defense, less than Britain by itself and less than one-tenth of U.S. military spending.
That sounds less impressive than the way White House press secretary Ari Fleischer described it last week: "All told, the population of coalition of the willing is approximately 1.18 billion people around the world. The coalition countries have a combined GDP of approximately $21.7 trillion. Every major race, religion and ethnic group in the world is represented. The coalition includes nations from every continent on the globe."
Possibly. But the coalition remainsa work in progress. After initially including Angola in the coalition of the willing last week, the White House removed the country without explanation, as first noted by Agence France-Presse. Angolan embassy officials didn't respond yesterday to phone calls. With luck, Angola can be replaced by Morocco, if a report yesterday by UPI is to be believed. According to the wire service, Morocco's weekly al Usbu' al-Siyassi claimed that Morocco has offered 2,000 monkeys to help detonate land mines.
An official at the Moroccan Embassy could not confirm the presence of monkeys in the coalition of the willing.