Published on Friday, March 21, 2003 by the Washington Post
United States Puts a Spin On Coalition Numbers
by Glenn Kessler
The Bush administration has frequently compared the level and scope of international support for its military operations in Iraq to the coalition that fought the first Persian Gulf War. But the statements are exaggerations, according to independent experts and a review of figures from both conflicts.
Yesterday, for instance, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters: "The coalition against Iraq, called Operation Iraq Freedom, is large and growing. This is not a unilateral action, as is being characterized in the media. Indeed, the coalition in this activity is larger than the coalition that existed during the Gulf War in 1991."
However, the current operation in Iraq is almost entirely a U.S.-British campaign, with virtually no military contribution from other countries except Australia.
"It's a baldfaced lie to suggest that" the coalition for this war is greater than that for the 1991 war, said Ivo H. Daalder, a former Clinton administration official now at the Brookings Institution who supports the war against Iraq. "Even our great allies Spain, Italy and Bulgaria are not providing troops."
The administration asserts that 44 nations are part of the coalition, but officials reach that number by lumping nations providing military units or logistical assistance with an eclectic group of nations -- such as Afghanistan, the Dominican Republic, Eritrea, Honduras, Rwanda and the Solomon Islands -- that are voicing only political support. The administration further suggests another 10 or so nations support the campaign but do not wish to be publicly identified.
The first Persian Gulf War was prosecuted by a 34-nation military force, with each nation listed in the coalition contributing troops on the ground, aircraft, ships or medics. (The list is sometimes reported as 31, because four Persian Gulf states provided a combined force.) Dozens of others nations voiced support for the war against Iraq in 1991, meaning that under the standards used by the current Bush administration, the size of the 1991 coalition likely topped 100 countries.
Moreover, the list of 34 countries in 1991 did not include Japan, which pledged $4 billion to fund the multinational force and aid frontline states; the Soviet Union, which supported a United Nations resolution authorizing force; or tiny Luxembourg, which paid the fees of Dutch and Belgian ships passing through the Suez Canal.
Twenty-one of the 34 countries that contributed forces or materiel to the first Persian Gulf War -- such as France, Syria, Pakistan, Canada, Germany and Norway -- have either refused to support the current conflict or have asked not to be identified because of public opposition to U.S. actions. In 1991, for instance, France provided 17,000 troops, 350 tanks, 38 aircraft and 14 ships. Syria provided 19,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and 270 tanks, and Germany provided five minesweepers, three other ships and eight aircraft.
The administration's current list is further padded by including countries that did not exist in 1991. Six countries now listed as supporters were then part of the Soviet Union. Czechoslovakia, which in 1991 provided 200 troops and 150 medics, has now broken into two countries, both listed as supporters of the current war.
The administration has struggled to demonstrate international support for the war since it failed to win passage of a U.N. resolution authorizing military force. The first Gulf war was backed by a U.N. resolution that was opposed by two members of the 15-member Security Council; the administration earlier this week withdrew a resolution when it became clear it could muster only four votes in support of it.
In internal talking points issued earlier in the week, when the administration claimed 30 countries as public supporters, officials were urged to compare the number of current supporters to the size of the military force assembled in 1991. Yesterday, officials announced the number of countries had topped 44.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said countries on the list "may not be providing a specific resource, or they may just be allowing access, overflight or other participation in that way, or they may just have decided they want to be publicly associated with the effort to disarm Iraq."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he wasn't able to provide a breakdown of which nations provided what support at the moment. He said the importance of the list was not the military contribution, but the political support, because it demonstrated the United States was not acting unilaterally.
Fleischer also asserted that in 1991, the United States provided about 75 percent of the combat troops, and this year its contribution is around 85 percent. In either case, he said, "the U.S. shoulders most of the combat effort." A 1994 Congressional Quarterly study of contributions to the 1991 coalition found that other nations provided about 31 percent of the forces, though that percentage grew to 45 percent when Syrian and Turkish troops along Iraq's border are included.
President Bush, announcing the start of the war Wednesday night, said, "More than 35 countries are giving crucial support, from the use of naval and air bases to help with intelligence and logistics to the deployment of combat units."
Fleischer said that although Bush did not mention political support, his statement was correct. He said the president was working off a list that included countries that refuse to be named publicly but are providing intelligence support.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company