‘Sure, the American military can handle air strikes,” the Obama administration official said, speaking on grounds of anonymity. . . . “But it’s always nice to have help from your friends.” — The Boston Globe, September 6, 2014
Unfortunately, coalitions are complicated. To be sure, fighting with allies helps America. A coalition provides political cover in the legitimacy “of many faces.” A coalition binds nations together in shared cause. A coalition can provide material support to the U.S. military. But coalitions are never simple.
Consider NATO. With America providing the vast majority of NATO resources, personnel, and capabilities, two consequences have followed. First, the majority of NATO members lack military reliability. Second, NATO’s perceived weakness has encouraged President Putin’s agenda.
Whatever Obama administration officials claim, NATO’s existential crisis isn’t debatable. Indeed, just as last week’s NATO summit concluded, President Putin negotiated a cease-fire that ended Ukraine’s war on his forces and their rebel allies; dominating eastern Ukraine was the predictable outcome that Russia’s president has always been working toward. Via Russian “aid corridors” and an enforced separation from Kiev, east Ukraine has followed Crimea and Sevastopol to become Russia’s 92nd federal subject.
This undeclared reality looms large in Eastern European minds. Contemplate their viewpoint. While Putin has stolen a nation, NATO leaders have refused to even identify Russia’s obvious invasion. NATO’s response has been to announce a new (but small) rapid-reaction force. Of course, these personnel are unlikely to deter massed Russian divisions: The small force might actually further fray NATO credibility.
Still, if events in Europe prove that coalitions need credible intent, the prospective coalition against the Islamic State has its own challenges.
Although President Obama’s coalition rhetoric has escalated, the substance remains absent. Again, most European leaders lack the desire to match U.S. military endeavor. Predictably, it appears President Obama’s coalition is mainly about muting domestic criticism.
Speaking to the New York Times on Friday, administration officials expressed their hope “to get quiet intelligence help about [Islamic State] from Jordan. . . . ” This statement — intended as a diplomatic victory — is telling. Jordan is almost certainly sharing intelligence already: The GID, Jordan’s primary intelligence service, is America’s most cooperative Middle Eastern ally. Correspondingly, representing existing relationships as new developments, the White House is showing its PR priority. It hints that the White House will form its coalition with little regard for military needs.
But for U.S. military commanders depressed by President Obama’s strategy, building a functioning coalition isn’t simple. Defeating the Islamic State demands a coalition that achieves objectives and mitigates “friction” (the chaos of war), rather than mitigating U.S. domestic politics. Balancing egos, languages, and different tactics, techniques, and diverging agendas is challenging enough. After all, just as the Europeans lack the refueling aircraft to wage a sustained air campaign, the Sunni Arab monarchies aren’t a unified political bloc. Instead, as in Libya, their agendas are often in conflict. More problematic is Iran. Some analysts suggest that the United States should ally with Khamenei to oppose the Islamic State fanatics. They neglect the fact that Iran’s agenda is fundamentally divorced from the United States’.
All this being said, just as the NATO coalition can redress its deficiencies with higher EU defense spending and a more confident deterrent posture, constructing a counter–Islamic State coalition is also possible. The Sunni Arab monarchies could fund and regionally legitimize our effort. Recognizing the Islamic State’s territorial and ideological vulnerabilities, Great Britain, Canada, and France could join a U.S. effort to find-fix-finish-exploit-analyze and thus eviscerate the Islamic State (as al-Qaeda in Iraq learned, Special Forces operations aren’t conducive to Salafi-jihadist health).
Regardless, we must remember that coalitions are complicated and that their successful reality is defined by action. Not by rhetoric.