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Coalition Puts Unity to the Test

RESPONSE TO TERROR | CLAMPING DOWN : NEWS ANALYSIS

September 28, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

This conservative portrait utterly inverts the image of its first eight months, when critics at home and abroad witheringly accused Bush of ignoring international opinion on such issues as global warming and the U.S. missile defense proposal.

Senior administration aides say that conservatives' fears of excessive deference are as overblown as the earlier liberal complaints of stubborn unilateralism. In a speech in Chicago on Thursday, Bush signaled that while he welcomed support from a broad coalition, he would not be constrained by it. "Our mission will not change to fit any coalitions," Bush said, in a direct echo of Rumsfeld. "We hope everybody follows, but we're marching on."

Perhaps Not Just One Coalition

One early test of what that means in practice was the public warnings from Pakistan last week that the United States should not seek either to overthrow the Taliban government or to ally with the rebel Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Bush so far has offered somewhat mixed signals on whether the United States will explicitly seek to dislodge the Taliban.

Rumsfeld and other administration officials have suggested that one way to deal with these inevitable disagreements will be to employ "revolving coalitions" for different aspects of the campaign. Under that approach, nations that cooperate in the hunt for Bin Laden and his network might withdraw later if the United States targets the Taliban itself, or even Iraq.

"It's not like the Gulf War coalition, where we had a single, 100-day war . . . and everybody signed on to that," a senior administration official said. "This is a war with multiple fronts, and countries can contribute by signing on to any of those fronts," said a senior administration official. ". . . But we don't expect everybody to fight with us on every one of those fronts."

Even so, some think that the United States is likely to face the same choices over the value of consensus whenever it moves to more controversial goals. "At some point in this process, we may find ourselves without a full coalition," said Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But we have to be careful, because we need friends here, and we need to keep in mind the long-term approach as much as the short-term."

Up until the Sept. 11 attacks, Democrats had lodged much the same criticism against Bush as the European allies. On such issues as the tax cut, they had accused Bush of a "my way or the highway" refusal to negotiate.

Since the attack, the political parties have worked diligently to minimize conflict even on issues in which they might otherwise disagree deeply. Yet pressures are gathering that will test that commitment.

The two sides are developing divergent approaches to further economic stimulus. The contrast is even sharper on airport security: Democrats and some Senate Republicans are pushing for a complete government takeover, while the administration has rejected such an expansive federal role.

So far, though, the desire to avoid conflict is proving surprisingly durable. The two parties have been negotiating with unusual amity to narrow their differences over the administration's internal security bill. And though many senators still prefer a complete federalization of airport security, the initial inclination is not to force an open confrontation with Bush over his more limited approach, said one top Senate aide. Said the aide: "We will sit down and have a lot of meetings rather than saber-rattling on the Senate floor."

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