The Realist Prism: Obama’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’ Problem on Iran

The Realist Prism: Obama’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’ Problem on Iran

In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, before the Iraqi insurgency had come to define the conflict, one of the Democratic Party’s loudest criticisms of the Bush administration was that it had utterly bungled the diplomatic angle in the run-up to the war: President George W. Bush had been unable to replicate his father’s success in getting the United Nations to pass a catch-all resolution authorizing “all necessary means” to ensure that Iraq was disarmed. Nor had he been able to get a major regional security organization to endorse military action after efforts at the U.N. Security Council had ended in deadlock, as his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton had succeeded in doing over Kosovo.

Instead, the Bush team fell back on two slender and weak reeds to justify the invasion: the unilateral right of the United States or a group of states to enforce previous U.N. Security Council resolutions; and the invocation of an ad hoc “coalition of the willing” in which small states made token contributions, while the brunt of the operation was borne by the U.S., Australia and Great Britain. During his first debate with Bush as the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, Sen. John Kerry explicitly targeted this approach, declaring, “That's not a grand coalition. We can do better.”

But this rhetoric may come back to haunt the Obama administration as it gears up for the 2012 presidential election amid heightened tensions with Tehran. For if the president comes to the conclusion that a military strike on Iran is the only way to cripple or destroy that country’s nuclear program, he may find himself relying on the same set of arguments that his predecessor did in justifying his actions. And while pundits and comics had a field day with some of the members of Bush’s coalition of the willing -- such as Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Micronesia, among others -- the U.S. today finds itself in an even weaker position than in 2003 when it comes to bribing or cajoling other states into joining it in a potential campaign against Iran.

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