WASHINGTON – President Bush promises to be at the helm of a "vast coalition'' against Iraq. Unlike his father's 31-nation force for the Persian Gulf War, however, it is a coalition slow to gather and lacking in marquee players.
Bulgaria has anted up an airport. Romania guaranteed air bases and airspace rights to U.S. fighter jets. Qatar is upgrading its al-Udeid air base and letting the Pentagon set up a command center and pre-position armored brigade equipment there.
If the lineup looks like small-fry now, some experts expect it not to be for long.
With Congress' overwhelming vote to authorize a military strike if necessary to disarm Iraq and remove President Saddam Hussein, the U.N. Security Council and skittish would-be coalition members will fall into line, said Bill Taylor, former director of National Security Studies at West Point.
"The ones who pay any attention to our democracy understand that the hand of the president is strengthened enormously by Congress going along,'' Taylor said.
"You're seeing the trickle right now, and he's having a much tougher time than his father, but he's going to pull it off.''
Today's big bench-warmers — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Canada and others — can be counted on to enlist if and when Bush commits the full force of the U.S. military to wiping out Saddam and his weapons programs, agreed Ivo Daalder, who was an adviser to President Clinton's National Security Council.
"Nobody wants to be left behind in a sure victory,'' Daalder said.
For months, lawmakers in both parties, as well as Republican Party elders, publicly worried over what looked like a go-it-alone strategy at the White House. The president has since underscored a group effort by the United States and "a lot of our friends.''
"My intent is to put together a vast coalition of countries who understand the threat of Saddam Hussein,'' Bush said. "Many, many countries share our determination to confront this threat. We're not alone.''
Pressed to name names, Bush and his aides say only that time will tell. No less than Canada suggests it will take some convincing.
The day before Bush spoke of leading a vast coalition, Canada split with the United States over the question of ousting Saddam and said the verdict was still out on whether Canada would take part in any U.S.-led offensive.
In Operation Desert Storm, Canada deployed two destroyers and a supply ship to the Persian Gulf, and Canadian fighter jets flew bombing raids alongside the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, France, Italy, Bahrain and Qatar.
Then, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and an almost-instantaneous denunciation by the U.N. Security Council made coalition-building easy work for the first President Bush.
In the end, he had 31 nations helping to push back Saddam. Aside from the United States, the largest armed contingents came from Britain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and France. Turkey tied down Iraqi troops by deploying some 100,000 of its soldiers along the Turkish border with Iraq. Germany and Japan, legally barred from offensive warfare, provided billions of dollars to help defray war costs.
This time, U.S. allies are telling the current president they want proof Saddam is capable of a nuclear attack. And, led by France, most insist on the cover of a U.N. resolution demanding disarmament — or else.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won re-election and fractured U.S.-German relations by refusing to follow Bush into any war with Iraq. Its economy in the tank, Japan is in no position to be paying anyone else's bills.
Russia, with veto power on the Security Council, is bargaining for assurances that Moscow will not have to forfeit $7 billion owed by Iraq. Turkey wants promises of an Iraq kept whole, lest the Kurdish-controlled north seek an independent state and stir Kurdish rebels within Turkey's own borders.
Even in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair has aligned himself behind Bush and led the indictment of Saddam for his illegal weapons programs, Parliament balks and Downing Street officials demur when asked about British troops going after Saddam again. That's hypothetical territory, they say.
The few allies who have already thrown almost unconditional support Bush's way are countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, which aspire to NATO membership and are eager to demonstrate their mettle.
Australia is firmly backing Bush, no matter what the United Nations ultimately does. Poland, Spain and Italy also have offered moral support, if not explicit promises of troops or other material help.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld frequently hints at a greater number of private commitments.
"In their defense, I don't think they have actively gone out — at least publicly — to gather the coalition,'' Daalder said.
"I think there may well be a vast coalition if we continue to play our cards right; if we get a U.N. Security Council resolution, if we seriously try to implement it, and if Saddam doesn't comply.''