Bush's Fragile Coalition

The President must tread carefully to keep global support intact

First came the predictable backing from NATO for an ally reeling from the deadliest terrorist attack in history. Then support flooded in from unlikely sources: Governments from Beijing to Moscow to Tehran offered not only their condolences but also held out the promise of assistance in the fight against Osama bin Laden.

Should these rarely united nations join forces against the scourge of terrorism, their coalition would dwarf the multinational alliance assembled a decade ago for the Gulf War. In the midst of dozens of sober telephone conversations and Oval Office visits with world leaders, President Bush on Sept. 17 assessed his progress: "The world is rallying to our call to defeat terrorism."

But for how long? Despite Bush's early success, that question remained unanswered. "[The allies] have been supportive," notes Karl-Heinz Kamp of Berlin's Konrad Adenauer Institute. "Whether that holds when the first bombs drop on Afghanistan and Iraq remains to be seen."

Many experts caution that the extraordinary breadth of Bush's mission--to end the threat of terrorist "evil" for future generations--may tax the political will of a fragile global community. The only thing nations seem to agree on is their conviction that bin Laden's fervor for killing innocents is outside the bounds of civilized society.

To build bridges, the Bush Administration is structuring the coalition to permit a sliding scale of contributions from its partners, from lip service to intelligence gathering to providing crucial staging areas for commando raids. Some, such as Britain and Canada, are likely to send military contingents. Others, perhaps Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, may consider temporarily granting coalition aircraft permission to use their countries as staging grounds for attacks. Pakistan and others, such as China, could exert diplomatic pressure on states that harbor terrorists. Meanwhile, the Administration is pushing certain countries, possibly including Switzerland and Saudia Arabia, to hand over information on the financial dealings of bin Laden and other international outlaws. Most significant, the U.S. is determined to lift the veil of suspicion that has kept many nations' intelligence services from sharing information on the global terror network. In a potentially important breakthrough, on Sept. 19, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov announced a partnership to share intelligence.

Here's a look at the regional lineup:

-- THE EUROPEANS. The devastation in Manhattan instantly united a Europe haunted by memories of World War II. In a show of unity, French President Jacques Chirac visited the White House on Sept. 18, and British Prime Minster Tony Blair was to follow two days later. "When we saw the attacks, we identified with the victims spontaneously," says German Foreign Ministry official Karsten D. Voight. Still, France and Italy are already grousing about the danger of an overly aggressive U.S. military response.

-- RUSSIA. President Vladimir V. Putin is an avowed enemy of bin Laden, whose terror network he blames for helping to finance Islamic rebels in Chechnya and bombings in Russian cities. Despite continuing Russian concerns about Bush's vow to scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and NATO expansion into the Baltics, Kremlin pragmatists see a payoff from cooperation. "We now have a tremendous opportunity to create not just a new international climate but a new international order," says Alexander Savelyev, a defense analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

But Old School hardliners, such as Security Council chief Vladimir Rushailo, fear giving America a foothold in the traditional Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia. Absent American concessions allowing a larger Russian voice in NATO, nationalists are likely to resist any deep partnership.

-- CHINA. Like Russia, it has been fighting Muslim separatists and wants to ensure that Xinjiang rebels aren't trained in Afghanistan. And some Chinese leaders see a chance to convince Americans that Beijing is not a strategic rival. "It's a unique opportunity to overcome the friction of the past," says David M. Lampton of Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. "They have a chance to make it clear that we share meaningful security interests."

At the same time, China is edgy over the prospect of U.S. military action inside a sovereign state, particularly one on its border. And China's policy of selling advanced offensive weapons to such countries as Iran and Pakistan is still a sore point between Washington and Beijing.

Many foreign policy scholars expect the Chinese to demand a stiff price for any participation. For starters, Beijing would welcome a lessening of U.S. criticism over its intentions toward Taiwan, its occupation of Tibet, and its continuing crackdown on domestic dissent. Says Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhu Bangzao: "Chinahas reasons to ask the U.S. to give its support and understanding in the fight against terrorism and separatists."

-- INDIA AND PAKISTAN. These rival South Asian nuclear powers find their traditional relationships with the U.S. reversed as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. India, a Soviet ally in the cold war, is eager to please the U.S. and is offering use of its bases. Pakistan, a cold war friend of the U.S., is under intense pressure from Washington to shed its military and economic ties to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

But there are limits to any aid Pakistan's rulers can offer Uncle Sam: Powerful Muslim hardliners, including some in the state security forces, could start an insurrection against leaders who embrace a Western crusade against Islam. "Because of Pakistan's economically perilous situation and internal instability, it will be extremely difficult for the government of Pakistan to provide the kinds of assistance we might be demanding," says Leon Fuerth, national security adviser to former Vice-President Al Gore.

Given the risks involved, Islamabad is hoping for a major concession in return for helping Washington, including a possible end to American sanctions, up to $30 billion in economic aid, and mediation of the long-smoldering fight over the region of Kashmir.

-- MODERATE ARAB STATES. The U.S. can depend on some help from Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, all of which share American concerns about radical fundamentalists. But the Arab states fear that a lengthy war with thousands of Muslim casualties could destabilize their regimes. "They are faced with two bad options: Join us or stay away from us," says Simon Serfaty of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

That's why most Arab leaders plan to keep low profiles in the early stages of any counterstrike. Arab nations are also demanding that the U.S. help spur an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Israel's Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat agreed to unilateral ceasefires on Sept. 18, actions that give the Administration more leeway with the Arabs. Says Thierry de Montbrial, director of the French Institute for International Relations in Paris: "Americans should use all their weight to bring about a balanced solution."

Bush's challenges in the coming months will be enormous. His coalition is unlikely to survive a sustained military campaign, particularly if targets extend beyond bin Laden to other American enemies, such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein. But the U.S. hopes to keep the broadest alliance together for the longest possible time. Even if Bush doesn't succeed in eradicating evil from the planet, he's determined to find a way to at least start the job.

By Richard S. Dunham, with Lee Walczak, Stan Crock, and Alexandra Starr, in Washington, Paul Starobin in Moscow, Dexter Roberts in Beijing, and bureau reports

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.