All of these factors undermine the war fighting capability of the United States, and, as a consequence, the ability to prevail in the operation. Fighting via coalition, in other words, has not increased the chance that the United States will succeed, especially in Iraq.

The United States' effort to forge military coalitions as a means to achieve international consensus have proven problematic. Worse, the legitimacy it hoped to garner has not materialized. In fact, the United States is widely regarded as unilateralist—both at home and abroad—despite its paying billions of dollars to keep its partners at its side.

Moreover, the coalition operation in Afghanistan has been tainted by Operation Iraqi Freedom. It has become increasingly difficult to get states to send the necessary troops to fight the ongoing Afghan insurgency, and the faults of Iraq have made the Afghan war seem less legitimate now than it once was.

Still worse, former friends now see the U.S. as a growing threat to world peace. A poll released in September 2007 by the Pew Foundation found that of all of the Middle Eastern countries surveyed, Turkey (a primary American ally in the region) has by far the largest percentage of people naming the United States as the country that poses the greatest international threat—nearly two-thirds (64%) of Turkish respondents named the United States as the most threatening state in the world system.This is just one indication that garnering legitimacy via coalition warfare is not working.

The problems associated with contemporary coalition warfare are, to a large extent, general characteristics inherent to the nature of fighting in multinational operations. Difficulties with coordination, command, and control are intrinsic to the process. However, it is also clear that in the case of Iraq in particular, the Bush administration holds special accountability. By not doing the hard work of diplomacy to ensure that all allies and coalition partners are not only fighting on the same side, but are united in their mission, the crisis in legitimacy has deepened. Differences over questions of torture, human rights, and the status of enemy combatants have all wrought havoc on coalition cohesion.

In contrast, George Bush Sr. was highly successful at forging coalitional cohesion in the first Gulf War. George H.W. Bush used personal diplomacy and on-going relationships with world leaders to bring the member states together. Almost 50 countries contributed to the first Gulf War in some capacity.

By the end of the operations (both Desert Shield and Desert Storm), 38 countries including the United States contributed nearly 800,000 troops to the coalition. There were over 300 combat and combat support battalions, over 225 naval vessels and nearly 2800 fixed wing aircraft. Many countries contributed to the coalition financially—in addition to billions in economic aid to affected countries, an estimated $54 billion was given to the United States to offset the projected incremental costs of $61 billion. [endnote 20]

In short, the First Gulf War in its entirety cost the United States less than what it spends in a month in the ongoing war in Iraq. Diplomacy matters powerfully in successful coalition operations.

Balance of Power or Balancing Act?

The United States is struggling to effectively prosecute its wars and maintain its position in the international system. But the burden is not only combating enemies, but managing friends. As pundits and scholars alike foretell the demise of American hegemony as a consequence of overextension and imperial overreach, the part of the story that is neglected is the enabling role U.S. allies play.

The Bush administration's ability to put together a coalition to fight the war in Iraq made it easier for the government to justify the operation. Even if key American allies were against Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 40 odd states that contributed two or more troops gave the appearance of a true multilateral venture.

As we debate whether Iran is really continuing its nuclear ambitions, or whether or not the latest National Intelligence Estimate is correct, we should also be thinking about strategies of confrontation that work.

Tremendous intellectual energy has been devoted to uncovering how best to develop and implement counterinsurgency operations (COIN), to design strategies to counter terrorism, and to build weapons systems that will allow American power to prevail.  Similar energy needs to be devoted to understanding when alliances and coalitions are best suited to win the wars. We cannot afford to continue to accept blindly the idea that more partners equals better fighting capacity.

Military alliances, during wartime, should be constructed when they augment fighting power and enhance the likelihood of prevailing. During periods of peace, alliances to manage relationships among signatories work well; during wartime they produce a tenuous balancing act that undermines war fighting capability as well as domestic morale.

Where to From Here?

In 1796 George Washington cautioned his fellow countrymen against the perils of becoming too intertwined with the fates of other nations. He warned that entangling alliances could ultimately undermine the national interest of the fledgling country that is today the mightiest nation on earth. Over two hundred years later, it is useful to revisit and revamp Washington's warning.

The contemporary problem with entangling alliances is not the worry that the United States will be entrapped into a war situation on behalf of an ally. Rather, it is that the United States is finding it increasingly difficult to fight wars alone. Despite the fact that the proportion of coalition warfare to all warfare has remained constant from Washington's era to today, the United States' overall participation in multinational operations is at an all time high—more since the end of the Cold War than in the century that preceded it.

This may appear at first glance to be a positive trend. It makes sense that as the strongest nation on earth, the U.S. would be involved in military conflicts around the globe. It also makes sense that the United States would want to fight with allies by its side instead of alone. This should be a way of augmenting troop strength and enhancing the likelihood of victory while simultaneously decreasing costs.

But the United States has engaged in multilateral operations in a way that has decreased the likelihood of success while simultaneously increasing costs. In Iraq in particular, the United States is using coalition warfare in a way that undermines the national interest.

Fighting with friends enables the U.S. to engage our enemies more often than would otherwise be the case. If Americans want to undertake a mission with its allies or build a coalition to prosecute a war, there must be more attention paid to the optimal fighting size and the objectives of the coalition. Does the U.S. have to pay its friends to fight with it? If so, how much? Is it worth it? If a military mission has international legitimacy, then the U.S. should be able to build a coalition without paying allies to participate. If it is necessary to pay coalition partners, then perhaps the U.S. should not undertake the military operation at all. There are many ways that multinational jointness can be effective without deploying troops together.

Certainly, the tide should be turned from large coalitions populated by countries that contribute little yet reap significant gains. The United States should pare down its coalition partners and alliance members with which it is opting to fight. A coalition should be an efficient fighting tool, not an unwieldy force that undermines effectiveness and ratchets up costs. Coalition warfare can be an extremely effective instrument of statecraft, but only when it is used wisely.