Much has been made the past few weeks about the number of allies that have rallied to President Barack Obama’s side in his slow-motion counter-attack against ISIS. “Obama Enlists Nine Allies to Help in the Battle against ISIS,” a New York Times headline blandly declares. The mention of such a small number to confront such an evil foe serves as something of an indictment of the president. Offering a rejoinder to Obama’s ISIS speech, Newsweek mockingly notes, “A broad-based coalition? Let’s see. There’s a lot of reason to doubt that the countries we need the most will do much.” Likewise, The New Yorker lampoons “Obama’s coalition of the willing and unable,” warning that “this new and important mission…will depend on partners who are at best unreliable and possibly incapable.” The Wall Street Journal piles on by pointing out, “Britain has categorically ruled out military strikes in Syria, while Germany has ruled out any use of force. Now, Turkey is bugging out.” After reporting that “five Arab nations” would contribute to the effort, a BBC correspondent noted, “It’s not clear what roles they are actually filling.” Reflecting the kind of involvement—and comfort level of those involved—CNN reports “Qatar is involved but it’s unclear if it’s conducting any airstrikes.”
If the stakes weren’t so high, one could forgive the president’s critics for enjoying a measure of schadenfreude as he struggles to build a coalition to do what’s right in a world crippled by apathy and moral relativism. As a candidate for the office he now holds, after all, Obama vowed “to rebuild and construct the alliances and partnerships necessary to meet common challenges and confront common threats.” Indeed, he peppered his speeches during his candidacy and into his presidency with caricatures of President George W. Bush as a unilateralist, criticized the “lackluster diplomatic efforts” of the Bush administration and vowed to “make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others.”
“We should not go it alone,” Obama said as recently as this past spring. “Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”
That’s easier said than done, as the president is learning in his struggle to build an anti-ISIS coalition.
Let’s be clear about the facts: Bush didn’t win UN Security Council authorization before Operation Iraqi Freedom and famously said, “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.” But nor did he “go it alone” in Iraq. In fact, 37 nations “furnished a total of around 150,000 ground forces from the start of the operation through July 2009,” according to a U.S. Army report.
Twenty-one members of the European Union and 17 members of NATO fought alongside the United States in Iraqi Freedom. As late as 2007, after four years of war, 20 countries still had troops in Iraq. At their peak, the allies represented 21 percent of the ground forces in theater. They made real contributions to the mission. To suggest otherwise is to slander and dishonor their sacrifice and service: 1,952 allies were wounded and 322 were killed.
Media mantras notwithstanding, these figures and percentages are in line with other major U.S.-led military operations:
• At the peak of operations in Afghanistan, the United States accounted for 75 percent of forces deployed; 48 countries joined the U.S. in the UN-authorized Afghanistan operation.
• In the Kosovo air war, the U.S. Air Force flew 79 percent of NATO’s 38,000-plus sorties; only 13 countries joined in the operation, which was not approved by the UN.
• In Bosnia, 75 percent of airstrikes were conducted by American and British air assets; just eight countries participated in the UN-authorized mission.
• In Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the U.S. accounted for 72 percent of forces deployed (and a far higher percentage of forces engaged in combat); 38 countries joined America in the UN-sanctioned operation.
• In Korea, the U.S. accounted for 88 percent of non-ROK combat forces; only 16 countries participated in the UN-approved defense of South Korea.
After almost six years, Obama is learning something his predecessor understood innately: The lack of allied participation—or UN approval, for that matter—is not necessarily a reflection on America or the result of U.S. diplomatic failure. Rather, it is often a reflection of fecklessness in Europe, poisoned political systems in the Middle East, gamesmanship in Moscow and Beijing, and systemic inadequacies at the UN.
Nor is the lack of allied support proof of the wrongness or futility of a policy. After all, President Thomas Jefferson proposed an anti-piracy coalition with Europe “to compel the piratical states to perpetual peace.” But as Gerard Gawalt of the Library of Congress explains, “Jefferson’s plan for an international coalition foundered on the shoals of indifference.” (Sounds familiar.) So, Jefferson launched a unilateral war on piracy.
Upon France’s surrender in May 1939 and until America’s entry into the war in December 1941, Churchill’s Britain fought alone against Hitler’s Germany. Churchill was right; the rest of the world was wrong. He knew from experience how difficult and terrifying it was to stand alone. “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them,” he said. But even when he was alone at the front, he didn’t stop fighting for what he knew to be right.
Closer to our time, President Ronald Reagan launched unilateral military operations in Libya and Grenada, and he was right to do so.
On the other hand, allied participation is not proof of the rightness or soundness of a policy.
The U.S. was part of UN-blessed international coalitions in Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993. And both well-intentioned missions turned into disasters.
Thirty countries contributed troops to the laughably misnamed UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), which stood aside, Pilate-like, as the Serbs strangled and mangled Bosnia in the first half of the 1990s. The low point came when Serbian militia surrounded UNPROFOR’s so-called “safe haven” in Srebrenica and murdered 7,000 Bosnian-Muslim men. Allied participation and UN authorization did nothing to save them from mass-murder.
So, while it may be ironic that Obama, given his past broadsides against Bush, has deployed U.S. forces to wage war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria without UN authorization and without much hands-on help from allies outside Iraq, it shouldn’t really matter. If the cause is just, if the mission serves the national interest, if it meets constitutional muster, the number of allies involved is irrelevant.