Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Coalition of the Unwilling?

December 8, 2004
A Call to Arms

ALLINN, Estonia — With Iraq still in upheaval, I thought I'd lend President Bush a hand and visit some of our loyal partners in the "coalition of the willing" to drum up more troops.

As Mr. Bush pointed out in a presidential debate when John Kerry complained that the U.S. was going it alone in Iraq, we have 30 countries standing with us in Iraq. Actually, by next month we'll be down to 27, but if each of those nations sent 5,000 additional troops, we would nearly double the foreign forces in Iraq.

Oops. Estonia, this lovely postage-stamp-size member of our coalition, has armed forces with a grand total of only 4,000 troops.

Still, I tried.

In his splendid office in the picturesque old quarter of Tallinn, Prime Minister Juhan Parts told me how much Estonians treasure American support. So I suggested that Estonia show its appreciation by sending, say, 1,000 more troops to Iraq.

The prime minister looked stricken.

"Estonia is small," he said, arguing that the 55 Estonian soldiers in Iraq isn't bad for a country the size of his. He added: "Concerning public opinion here, of course, nobody is for war - this is quite obvious - and 60 percent were not very much in favor of Estonian participation. ... We contributed as much as we can at this moment."

My mission had suffered a setback.

One has to respect the contributions of countries like Estonia, which has already had two soldiers killed and 15 injured. Maj. Sten Reimann, who recently returned from a posting in Iraq, said that each Estonian soldier wondered before going out on patrol each day, What am I doing here? His own answer, he said, was that bringing security to Iraq is a worthy goal.

Many others I interviewed offered a more troubling answer. A student named Sven Kukenelk put it like this: "It's like an investment for us."

By this logic, Estonia invests troops in Iraq, and then the United States will be morally bound to rescue Estonia if it gets in trouble with Russia.

Triin Tael, who was out with her baby along the cobblestone streets of Tallinn, said that many Estonians considered the U.S. and Russia to be equally bad. But, she said, they want to cultivate ties with distant Washington to protect them from neighboring Moscow.

"It is in our interest to be friendly to the U.S.," she said, "because we are hoping that the U.S. and NATO will protect us if Russia attacks."

So, on the basis of those 55 soldiers in Iraq, the U.S is now committed to using its full economic and military force to back Estonia?

"Yes," she said. "That's exactly what we think."

It was my turn to look stricken.

Estonia's contribution is not unusual. Eight of our partners in Iraq have fewer than 100 soldiers there.

I'm afraid that my campaign to assist Mr. Bush in raising troops is, so far, proving no more successful than my past missions to help Mr. Bush find W.M.D. in Iraq or Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. No wonder Mr. Bush never calls, never writes.

I started my present search for troops in Ukraine. The departing dictator, Leonid Kuchma, sent 1,600 troops to Iraq, apparently in the hope that Mr. Bush would ignore the tendency of Mr. Kuchma's opponents to end up dead.

These days, Ukraine's pro-democracy leader, Viktor Yushchenko, is promising to pull Ukraine's troops out of Iraq. A Ukraine that is responsive to public opinion, it seems, will not be a member of our coalition.

And that's the problem with our coalition: it's mostly made up of leaders counting on rewards, rather than of nations that are really behind us. Tony Blair genuinely believes in the Iraq war as a matter of principle, but the other members of the coalition are mostly opportunists trying to buy good will in the Bush administration.

That's because a White House that proved immensely sensitive to public opinion in Ohio has been oblivious to public opinion abroad. To his credit, Mr. Bush has tried to mend relations lately, but the damage is done: Americans are dying in Iraq, largely on their own, because Mr. Bush's bulldozer approach has so alienated potential allies.

But don't give up. I'll continue my mission on behalf of Mr. Bush by traveling to two more giants in our coalition: Latvia and Lithuania. Will I find more troops for Iraq? Stay tuned.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times CompanyC


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