The Attack on America: Beware of Constraints Imposed byInternational Coalition


The Attack on America: Beware of Constraints Imposed byInternational Coalition

September 17, 2001 6 min read
Acting Senior Vice President, Research
Kim R. Holmes, oversaw the think tank’s defense and foreign policy team for more than two decades.

The President has spoken of the need to gather a global coalition to fight terrorism, and he is right to do so. And so far he has had some success. The Pakistani government has said that it will cooperate with the United States, including allowing U.S. warplanes to use Pakistani airspace. However, the Pakistani government also suggested that it would not give U.S. forces access to its territory for military operations unless the military coalition were broadly international, including Muslim states. Moreover, Islamabad hinted that it would not give its approval unless the United Nations Security Council approved the action.  On a different front, Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that he would welcome Iran-that long-time U.S. nemesis and supporter of terrorism--into a coalition to combat global terrorism. Clearly the administration is thinking broadly as it approaches the task of assembling the international coalition.

These actions raise a very important question: How far should the U.S. go to allow members of a coalition to limit the means and ends of any operation it must undertake? In this regard, it is instructive to examine the experience of the Persian Gulf War. The coalition that President George Bush assembled, which included such Middle Eastern countries as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, may have provided invaluable logistical support and political legitimacy, but it also limited the military campaign in both means and ends. There were many reasons why the U.S. did not go all the way to Baghdad to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but surely among the most powerful was the fact that America's Arab allies and Turkey would not allow it. Fearing an Arab backlash, holding the coalition of Desert Storm together became almost as important as the military campaign itself; the cohesion of the coalition per se was not merely a means to an end, but one of the strategic and political ends of U.S. policy.

The constraints imposed by the negotiations establishing the coalition of Desert Storm were codified at the outset into the United Nations Security Council Resolution sanctioning (and therefore limiting) the military action. Thus, from the very outset, the purpose of the action was to kick Saddam out of Kuwait, not remove him from power-a move, once fighting was underway, that gave the dictator the reassurance and freedom he needed to maintain his hold on power.

It is imperative, today, that the United States gain as much diplomatic support as possible for any action it takes against terrorism. Support not only from allies but from countries in the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia and even East Asia are politically and militarily necessary to mount an effective campaign. The U.S. has access to bases already in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Oman.But it will need other access if it wishes to undertake operations against Afghanistan. The U.S. may seek at some point not only seek a basing agreement with Pakistan, but also possibly air access agreements with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and maybe even Russia.

However, the U.S. must beware. All of these requests for help may whet the appetite of America's would-be allies to ask for something in return. So long as the demands from the U.S. are limited to diplomatic support, intelligence sharing or access to airspace, the price may not be unbearable. But if the U.S. requests access to bases or closer military cooperation from Pakistan and other would-be allies, particularly in the Middle East, the price may go up. If it does, Washington must avoid bargaining away too much of its freedom of action, reserving for itself the right to undertake any action necessary to see the campaign through to a successful end.

The U.S. should avoid trying to form a broad-based and unwieldy coalition of military forces that gives everybody a seat at the decision table. Doing so would only restrain U.S. action and politicize military decisions. Luckily, at this point, the U.S. does not need the help of large number of allied troops, but rather access to airspace, intelligence, logistical, economic and diplomatic support, and perhaps at some point bases.  There may be instances when some of America's closest allies (certainly the United Kingdom and perhaps even other NATO allies) will join the U.S. in military operations, but the price of entry must be unreserved support for the political and military objectives of the United States to eradicate terrorism. The U.S. will engage in close cooperation in intelligence and special operations with any number of countries, including some that may be unsavory, but there should be no political deals with them as the price of agreement that would dilute the purpose of the overall mission.

As the price for access to Pakistani bases and facilities, the U.S. should not agree to seek a U.N. Security Council Resolution. Nor, if access to bases is needed, should it agree to forgo cooperation with any other nation such as Israel or India, or to undertake cumbersome decision-making processes with coalition members that will restrain intelligence or military operations. Pakistan must be asked to make a decision: Does it support the United States or not in its campaign to eliminate terrorism? The U.S. should agree to protect Pakistan in any way it can if Islamabad offers concrete support. And it should offer aid, debt relief and even to lift sanctions. But it should not agree to tie its hands in seeing this campaign through to victory.

By the same token, the U.S. should be very careful indeed in seeking support from Iran, which is still on the State Department's list of terrorist states. This goes for Syria as well. There can be no doubt that it would be helpful in some quarters having Iran's and Syria's diplomatic support. This would be particularly true if the United States decides to move militarily against Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which are hostile to Iran and not on especially friendly terms with Syria.

If Iran were to use this catastrophe to reform its ways and stop supporting terrorism, then the U.S. indeed would benefit immensely from forging closer relations.

However, the U.S. should not make any deals with Iran until it is absolutely certain that such a reform as occurred. The National Commission on Terrorism issued a June 2000 report that recommended that the U.S. make no rapprochement with Iran until it had unequivocally stopped its support for terrorism, and this advice should still be heeded. Not doing so could undermine not only the moral clarity of the campaign against terrorism, but also possibly the integrity of its intelligence and military operations if Iran were playing a double game.

The U.S. faces a fundamental dilemma in this international war against terrorism. In order to gain Islamic support for a war against radical Islamic terrorism, the U.S. will have to make common cause with some Islamic states that are not only corrupt and lack legitimacy, but also are even sometimes part of the terrorist problem. In order to show that America's war is not with Islam per se, the U.S. will be tempted to restrain itself militarily and accommodate the large, complex and contradictory political agenda of Islamic states. This could, in turn, make the campaign ineffectual and ultimately prolong the problem of terrorism. America could inadvertently find itself making a bargain similar to the one made in the Gulf War-namely, propping up allied Arab and Islamic states becomes a strategic end in itself. The political cover to execute the military campaign becomes as strategically important as the campaign itself.

This should not happen. This is not the time to be cutting clever political deals that result in half-measures in the war against terrorism. Americans need to be realistic in devising the proper means to fight this war, and there may be times when deals are made to advance the overall cause. However, no coalition partner should be allowed to dictate to the United States the terms, conditions or nature of military operations; who should or should not be part of the international coalition; or what kind of foreign policies America should pursue. Americans should never be asked to settle for something less than victory. President Bush must weigh the benefit of any participant's support against the potential loss of operational freedom they ask as a price for their support.  If that price is too high, the President should tell them Americans will somehow get the job done without them. 

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Kim Holmes

Acting Senior Vice President, Research