Going to a bar in Washington these days means talking about war to whoever is seated next you. Inevitable perhaps, since at least one of the four or six television screens in the hall is showing non-stop war coverage even if the TV set is in “mute” mode. The only exceptions are the Irish pubs which doggedly want to shut out the war lest it distracts patrons from being devoted to the task at hand: enjoying a pint of good Guinness or any other Irish offering in their barrels.
After the initial comments meant to gauge your attitude to Iraq, once you identify yourself as an Indian, the question is predictable: Is India with the United States of America in this war to liberate the Iraqi people' Americans have a trust in their president which is as pathetic as the mistrust that Indians have in their governments. Neither the lies of Richard Nixon on matters of state nor those of Bill Clinton on his personal life has diminished that trust. Jimmy Carter became president after the traumatic Watergate years promising the American people that he will never lie to them. His mother, Lillian, told him not to make such rash promises. But Carter, probably the most honourable of recent US presidents, soon discovered that you cannot survive in the White House and not tell lies — whether it is to the people who elected you or to the rest of the world.
So, just as the majority of Americans believe that George W. Bush has sent his men in uniform into Iraq to liberate its people, they also believe that the US is not isolated in this effort. Far from it. Unlike its public relations abroad, the Bush administration has been extremely successful in selling its case on Iraq to its constituents. The major TV networks and chains of radio-stations which have had no qualms about being handmaidens of the White House in this effort have immensely helped Bush. So have the opposition Democrats who have acted as the Bush “B-team”, to borrow a phrase from Mamata Banerjee.
The question from bar companions here whether India is with the US on Iraq is prompted by the White House propaganda that the war to liberate the Iraqi people is the joint effort of a global coalition of 49 countries — no doubt an impressive number. Bush aides like Condoleezza Rice and Ari Fleischer never tire of reminding everyone since America’s debacle at the United Nations in recent weeks that the combined population of this coalition is approximately 1.23 billion, with a combined gross domestic product of approximately $ 22 trillion. They emphasize that every major race, religion and ethnicity in the world is represented, that the coalition includes nations from every continent on the globe.
It is no use telling your bar companions — who like most Americans have agreed to a willing suspension of disbelief — that even if 49 countries are with the US on Iraq, the UN has a membership of 191. The flip side of a coalition of 49 is that there are 142 countries which either did not want this war, or now that it has begun, want it to be stopped. But there is no defence against their childlike question, which has an answer built into it in the way it is asked. “Do you think the president is lying'”
So, it is no use arguing with Americans that according to statistics three years ago, more than six billion people inhabit this world. This figure has considerably gone up since then. If Rice and Fleischer maintain that 1.23 billion of this global population are trying to free the Iraqi people, it follows that there are another 4.8 billion people in this world who believe that war is not the best course to achieve that objective.
As for the coalition’s combined GDP of $ 22 trillion, the less said the better. According to UN statistics, about 70 per cent of that figure is cornered by three countries in the coalition: the US, Japan and the United Kingdom. Their share is $ 15.8 trillion. Foreign correspondents based in Washington could immensely amuse themselves by writing several stories about this coalition if only they had not been distracted by the need to write about the weightier issues posed by this war.
Take the Slovenian “circus”, which is one of the amusing footnotes to the whole propaganda effort associated with this coalition. Slovenia was one of the 10 countries which signed a declaration by central and east European governments supporting the US position on Iraq — a sort of appendix to the Gang of Eight led by Tony Blair, whose letter to European newspapers in January prompted the American defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to hail the “new Europe” that they represented.
No sooner had the Slovenian foreign minister signed the statement, than peace marchers took to the streets in Ljubljana, the capital, and it was clear that public opinion was in disagreement with the government’s policy. Slovenia’s prime minister, Anton Rop, conveniently blamed his foreign minister, Dimitrij Rupel, for making a faux pas, but the foreign minister himself back-tracked, wanting to be on the right side of public opinion. Rupel also realized that there was no way Slovenia could get into the European Union if it alienated France and Germany, and so he said his country was with the coalition for peace.
But in Washington, where there are big incentives on membership of the “coalition of the willing”, officials would not hear of any such change of heart. Last week, Slovenia found itself receiving a windfall of $ 4.5 million from the latest US budget. But Rop realized that the political cost being associated with the war would be much more than the money Washington was offering Lubljana. And this was not the first time Slovenia had been labelled as a supporter of the war.
A few days earlier, Henry Hyde, chairman of the House of Representatives international relations committee, had praised Slovenia for joining the coalition. Rop quickly said he did not want the money and made it clear that he was not in the coalition. There are red faces all round and the explanation in Washington now is that the money is not only for those countries which are supporting the war in Iraq, but also for those governments which are aiding the war against terrorism. Surely, the Slovenians would not want to be excluded from the anti-terrorist coalition!
Then there is the West Pacific island of Palau with a population of about 20,000 people, whose security, incidentally, is provided by the US army. It appears that Palau’s president decided to write to Bush offering his country’s support for rooting out tyranny in Baghdad. The US president promptly accepted the offer and Palau is now a proud member of the “coalition of the willing”.
Afghanistan is there too. Never mind the reality that its president, Hamid Karzai, would not live another day without the protection provided by US marines and the Turks and the Germans and a host of others who constitute the international security force in that country. So are the Eritreans, the Rwandans, the Solomon Islanders and the Dominicans. If the Americans had not become so isolated in the world with the Bush administration’s unilateralism, someone in the state department would have asserted that with friends like these, the US did not need enemies at a time like the present one.
America’s current diplomatic adversity is such that any support is welcome. In creating an illusion of international support, history has helped Washington. The defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, can truthfully tell reporters here that the current coalition is larger than the one that evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 because six of the republics in the former Soviet Union are now supporting the war. They did not exist in 1991 — nor did Slovakia which broke away from Czechoslovakia since the war for liberating Kuwait.
Iceland, another member of the coalition, has had no fighting forces for seven centuries now. But the biggest irony is that Turkey — which has actually landed the Americans in a soup in Iraq by refusing to allow US forces to land there and open a northern front against Saddam Hussein — is also listed as a partner in the coalition. Not- withstanding the fact that it grudgingly allowed use of its airspace after hard bargaining for its troops to have a say in Kurdish northern Iraq.
Along with the coalition of the willing, there is also what is known as the “coalition of the unwilling to be named”. The administration’s spin doctors hint that once Iraq is liberated, these countries will be proud to openly acknowledge their role in the war. On Thursday, the White House welcomed Tonga as the latest member of the “coalition of the willing”. It was not difficult to see why. Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, the King of Tonga, weighed 220 kg before he shed some of it — but only some of it.
A journalist friend in New Delhi recalls that during the Sino-Indian war in 1962, all that his little son wanted to know was whether the King of Tonga, who was then in transit through Palam airport, was supporting India against China. Like that little boy in 1962 who was impressed by a photograph of the monarch, Bush knows now that the King of Tonga could be a bulwark against Saddam Hussein. The White House has assured that the coalition will grow in number week after week — which should be fun.