U.S. to Discover That Coalition Building Is a Time-consuming, Messy Process

Obama and Kerry must tread carefully when enlisting partners in the fight against the Islamic State. If politics makes for strange bedfellows, coalitions do as well.

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U.S. President Barack Obama at the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, Sept. 5, 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama at the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, Sept. 5, 2014Credit: AP
Matthew Lee

AP - The first President Bush had one, so did President Bill Clinton, and the second President Bush had two. Now, President Barack Obama wants to build a coalition of nations to join the U.S. to combat the threat posed by the Islamic State group in the Middle East and beyond.

The diplomacy of coalition building is time-consuming, and questions about who can or should join are often messy. And in this situation it is complicated by the fact that the U.S. and its allies share an interest in defeating the extremists with some governments they otherwise oppose. Yet, if politics makes for strange bedfellows, coalitions do as well.

Thus, when Secretary of State John Kerry embarks to the Middle East and Europe this week to enlist what he has called a "coalition of the willing and capable" against the Sunni-led militants controlling large swaths of Syria and Iraq, he must tread carefully.

"I think it is absolutely critical that we have Arab states, and specifically Sunni majority states, that are rejecting the kind of extremist nihilism that we're seeing out of ISIL, that say that is not what Islam is about, and are prepared to join us actively in the fight," Obama said last week at the NATO summit in Wales, using an alternate acronym for the militant group. "And my expectation is, is that we will see friends and allies and partners of ours in the region prepared to take action, as well, as part of a coalition."

Obama, who will lay out his strategy for confronting the Islamic State group in a speech Wednesday, and Kerry got a boost Monday when the Arab League essentially agreed to be become part of the coalition, announcing that its 22 members would take urgent — although unspecified — political, defensive, security and legal measures to combat extremists.

That announcement followed a Saturday phone call from Kerry to Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby during which Kerry urged the group to "take a strong position" in the coalition, the State Department said.

Having brought together 10 allies to form the core of the new bloc last week, Kerry will be following in the footsteps of his predecessors James Baker and Colin Powell in recruiting new members, especially among Arab states, for action in their own backyard and cementing support from those already on board.

Last Wednesday, Kerry paid tribute to Baker, who signed up 33 countries to join the United States in taking action against Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait in the first major post-Cold War conflict in 1991. "His work to build a global coalition to confront Saddam Hussein ahead of Operation Desert Storm to this very day is the gold standard by which modern coalition building is judged and which I will personally use as I go out in the next days to work on the ISIL issue," Kerry said.

"Everybody can do something," Kerry said as he and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with "core coalition" members Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark.

But can they?

Baker's 1991 coalition was such a success because he managed to enlist Syria, a country that the Obama administration now blames for the growth of the extremists and has no interest in seeing as a member.

"The enemy of your enemy is not your friend," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday. "We continue to believe that (Syrian President Bashar) Assad has lost his legitimacy."

And what of Iran, which along with the U.S. is providing military support to the Iraqi government to fight the Islamic State group? Iran is also supporting Assad, whom the U.S. wants ousted. U.S. officials say Iran is not welcome and insist they are not coordinating any anti-Islamic State action with Tehran.

Russia is another tricky proposition, given its backing of Assad as well as pro-Russian separatists now fighting in Ukraine. U.S. officials have been coy about any approaches to Moscow, which last week said it was fully behind Obama's plan to convene and chair a United Nations Security Council meeting later this month on the issue of the Islamic State and foreign fighters.

Russia was absent from Baker and President George H.W. Bush's Gulf War coalition, opposed Clinton's NATO air strikes on Serbia and President George W. Bush's Iraq War. However, it did give a nod to U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and counted itself a member of the coalition formed to fight what was then known as the "global war on terror."

Some critics have derided the "core coalition" for being too small, with Iraq war supporters pointing out that Bush's "coalition of the willing" in 2003 for the Afghanistan invasion eventually included 48 nations.

But the State Department says more than 40 countries, not including Iran, have already given or offered support of some kind to Iraq in dealing with the militants. And Kerry appears undaunted, saying the Islamist radicals pose an opportunity for the world, or most of it, to unite.

"It's an opportunity to prove that we have the ability to come together, that our capacities for defense are not so frozen in an old model that we can't respond to something like ISIL, that we can't pull ourselves together and affect the coalition of clearly the willing and the capable to be able to deal with ISIL," he said at the NATO summit.

The administration hopes Kerry's mission will be bolstered by Obama's speech, which is aimed at presenting his strategy not only to the war-weary American people but to the also conflict-fatigued international community that will come together in the third week of September at the annual UN General Assembly session.

"We very much hope that people will be as declarative ... about what they're willing to commit, because we must be able to have a plan together by the time we come to UNGA, we need to have this coalesce," Kerry said. "We need a clarity to the strategy, and a clarity to what everybody is going to undertake."

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