Behind the learning curve

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Just as President Bush promised, American retaliation for the atrocity of Sept. 11 came at an hour of our choosing – and not a moment too soon. Had America waited any longer to engage its enemies, it might have ended up quarreling with its friends.

At a time when countries should be tripping over themselves to fight alongside the United States in a noble cause that is – whether they know it or not – in their own self-interest, Americans have had to waste time and energy massaging international egos and managing competing interests.

Now that more than three dozen U.S. aircraft and naval battle groups – aided by British warships and submarines – have dealt the first blows, the international coalition will continue to be tested.

The British, inspired by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s determination and eloquence, have already passed the test. But some countries are still behind the learning curve.

Pakistan is on board – to a point. Last month, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf condemned the attacks on the United States and the Pentagon and declared that “the world must unite to fight terrorism.” Now Musharraf, while supportive of the allied strikes, tells the world that Pakistan will stay in the fight as long as the allies’ military response is “short and targeted” and results in the taking of minimal civilian lives. In a country where religious schools preach militancy, where Osama bin Laden is revered as a “world hero” and where this week violent anti-American protesters responded to the air strikes by rioting and burning Musharraf in effigy, the president of Pakistan seems to be sitting firmly on the fence. True, he has a huge domestic problem on his hands. Yet, having sided with the coalition, Musharraf needs to stand with the West against bin Laden, even if it means standing against some of his own people.

Mexico is with us – sort of. When President Vicente Fox informed his countrymen that Mexico had a responsibility to join the coalition, public opinion polls informed him right back that Mexico should remain neutral. It turns out that, 150 years after the U.S.-Mexican War, anti-American sentiment is alive and well south of the border, where arrogant, upper-class Mexicans are loath to admit their dependence on the United States – and the $8 billion to $10 billion sent home each year from immigrants who live here. Unaccustomed to being at odds with public opinion, Fox responded ambiguously. After a damage-control blitz that included a whirlwind “solidarity” tour of the White House and the ruins of the World Trade Center, Fox finally pledged oil supplies and scrutiny of the U.S.-Mexico border – but no troops.

At the same time, Mexico wants to be a player on the world stage, pursuing – and this week receiving – a 2-year term as a non-permanent member of the 15-member U.N. Security Council. Mexico might have been worthy of this plum assignment, if not for its Mexican hat dance (one step up, two steps back) at a moment of crisis.

Even Israel, our old friend and ally, has shown reservations. Last month, the Israeli government marked the attacks on America by declaring a day of mourning and endorsing the idea of a coalition. But last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, angry that the coalition now includes moderate Arab states and that the Bush administration had voiced support for a Palestinian state, reached into the pages of history for an inappropriate comparison. Implying that Bush was appeasing the Arabs just as Neville Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler and the Nazis in 1938, Sharon warned that “Israel will not be Czechoslovakia” and said – rather ungratefully – that Israel could rely only on itself. After Bush directed aides to rebuke Sharon for his “unacceptable” comments, the Israeli Prime Minister apologized for what he called a misunderstood metaphor.

Sharon’s comments were more than that. They were a disturbing reminder that some of America’s friends and allies, even as they pledge support, still put their own agendas first.

Americans are right to question whether coalitions are more trouble than they are worth. At moments like this, we don’t need lectures or lessons in history.

After the attacks on our soil, President Bush was crystal clear when he told the countries of the world to decide whether they were with the United States or with the terrorists. A month later, some of our friends are still having trouble grasping the concept.