Coalition Of the Ineffectual

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By Richard Perle
Thursday, June 26, 2008

"A successful multilateral coalition" is how Condoleezza Rice described those countries, "united in confronting Iran," on which the administration's Iran policy critically depends.

"A complete failure" is Barack Obama's description of the Bush administration's Iran policy.

They are both right. The secretary of state, whose born-again multilateralism has redeemed her standing at the State Department and among our allies, can rightly claim to have forged a coalition on Iran. But Obama (whose enthusiasm for multilateralism is at least as fervent) can rightly claim that Rice's coalition has failed to slow, much less halt, Iran's unrelenting nuclear weapons program or diminish its support for terrorist groups.

The coalition that Rice thinks a success, and Obama a failure, is, at best, a "do nothing decisive" group, with at least half its members -- Germany, Russia and China -- maneuvering for self-serving advantage in their dealings with the mullahs in Iran. Russia continues to assist Iran's nuclear program while selling Iran advanced weapons. China is prowling for oil deals and selling advanced weapons. German businessmen fill the lobbies of Iranian hotels (one can't be sure what they're selling). The Russians and the Chinese have made it clear that they will not support sanctions that are severe enough to exert any real influence, and while Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has been outspoken in her disparagement of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, her words -- like our president's -- fly up, while her (and his) government's thoughts remain below.

For their part, the Iranians, undeterred by Rice's "successful multilateral coalition," are relentlessly building a nuclear weapons program while supporting terrorism and subversion in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The mullahs took only scornful notice of President Bush's appeals to an even larger coalition, "the world," when he said, on May 18, "To allow the world's leading sponsor of terror to gain the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon." But allow it does.

There are lessons here. Soon after taking office, President Bush rejected several previously negotiated international agreements, including the Kyoto treaty, the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, a protocol to the biological weapons convention and, in 2002, the treaty banning ballistic missile defenses. The reaction was angry and immediate: The United States, critics charged, had abandoned the multilateralism of the Clinton years for a high-handed "unilateral" approach that alienated our allies and undermined the alliances on which our security was said to depend.

This idea became a centerpiece of John Kerry's presidential campaign. He called for "a bold, progressive internationalism that stands in stark contrast to the too often belligerent and myopic unilateralism of the Bush administration," the conventional wisdom echoed by countless politicians, commentators and opinion polls these past seven and a half years. We are certain to hear more of the same in this year's presidential election.

Most often, "multilateral" has referred to policies that were either established in multilateral agreements or blessed by the United Nations, our European allies or both. Left implicit among those preaching multilateralism was the idea that a multilateral solution was always available, if only the administration had been willing to adopt it. It has often been said, wrongly, that the Bush administration opposed working with allies and preferred to go it alone. But a preference for going it alone never was the problem.

The problem, rather, is a dangerous confusion between ends and means, and it is a confusion shared by Condi Rice and Barack Obama. Coalitions, even successful multilateral ones, are instruments, tools, means to an end. They are important and useful, sometimes essential, but they are not, and must not be seen as, ends in themselves. Confusion on this point can lead to claims of success when failure is staring you in the face.

How else should we judge progress as we seek to end Iran's drive for nuclear weapons and its support for terrorism? We have a multilateral coalition. It is "united." But it has not, and almost certainly will not, do the thing for which it has arduously been put together.

Building multilateral coalitions entails compromise: to entice countries to join, to keep them on board, to order priorities, to achieve consensus on an action plan. Sometimes the compromises are worth it because the coalition goes on to achieve an objective that we could not possibly have achieved alone. Sometimes they are not, as when members are unwilling or unable to take effective measures and our own freedom of action is encumbered -- or worse, when satisfaction at having created a multilateral coalition becomes a substitute for achieving our objective. That is the case as the united multilateral coalition "confronts" Iran.

One can argue whether we alone can prevent an "unforgivable betrayal of future generations," as President Bush has put it. But the way to develop strategy for doing that begins by recognizing that the multilateral approach is failing. Seven and a half years after denouncing Iran's nuclear weapons program, a hapless president and his coalition can only look on while the Iranians rush to the finish line.

Art for art's sake is beautiful. Multilateralism for its own sake is not.

Richard Perle, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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