Brother, Can You Spare a Brigade?

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

December 11, 2004

VILNIUS, Lithuania

My (unsanctioned) mission on behalf of President Bush to drum up more coalition troops for Iraq is finally paying off.

I'm now at the end of my four-nation tour of the "coalition of the willing" (I'm skipping such other important members as Tonga, with 45 troops in Iraq, and Moldova, with 12). Since the White House has emphasized how firmly our partners are standing behind us, I interviewed the leaders of the Baltic nations and tried to get each of them to commit to sending 1,000 or more troops.

No luck.

Then I tried street mobilization: I talked to dozens of young people in Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, flattering them by telling them how good they would look in a uniform and asking whether they would mind fighting for us in Iraq. Mostly, I got strange looks.

(One woman in Latvia wouldn't let her boyfriend go to Iraq, but said she could spare her dad.)

I don't mean to demean Lithuania's 105 troops in Iraq, Latvia's 122, Estonia's 55 or even Norway's 10. For the wife and two sons of Olafs Baumanis, a Latvian soldier killed in June, the emptiness is unfathomable.

While his sacrifice was no joke, our coalition is. What I am trying to demean is the idea that we have a powerful coalition behind us: of the 28 allied countries that still have troops in Iraq at this moment, only eight have more than 500. Most are there as window dressing. And because of language and equipment difficulties, some contingents - like Macedonia's 28 or Kazakhstan's 29 - may be more trouble than they are worth.

Mr. Bush corralled foreign leaders into his "coalition of the willing," but never tried to win over foreign public opinion. So one poll shows that 80 percent of Latvians are against the deployment. Latvia's president, Vaira Vike-Freiburga, acknowledged that it would be difficult to extend the troop commitment beyond June.

President Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania, who lived more than 45 years in America and is as good a friend of America as anyone, warned repeatedly that the U.S. must show that it respects other nations. I suggested that he was trying to warn the Bush administration against arrogance; he smiled and said he had been trying to avoid that word.

We might recall what happened to ancient Athens, perhaps the greatest flowering of civilization. In just three generations, one small city - by today's standards, anyway - nurtured democracy, became a superpower and produced some of the greatest artists, writers, philosophers and historians the world has ever known.

Yet Athens became too full of itself. It forgot to apply its humanity beyond its own borders, it bullied its neighbors, and it scoffed at the rising anti-Athenianism. To outsiders, it came to epitomize not democracy, but arrogance. The great humanists of the ancient world could be bafflingly inhumane abroad, as at Melos, the My Lai of its day.

Athens's overweening military intervention abroad antagonized and alarmed its neighbors, eventually leading to its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. It's not so much that Athens was defeated - it betrayed its own wonderful values, alienated its neighbors and destroyed itself.

Fortunately, I think Mr. Bush is beginning to get it. Over the last month, Mr. Bush has shown a new and conciliatory side abroad, and his first trip after the inauguration will be to Europe. Colin Powell said this week that the administration was "reaching out to Europe," and that "I think Europe has to reach out as well." Bravo! And Europe does need to stick out its hand as well.

Another hopeful sign was the Bush administration's backing for Kofi Annan this week. The campaign against Mr. Annan by conservative U.N.-phobes had hurt America at least as much as it did Mr. Annan, and the administration adopted just the right tone in trying to stop it.

I've seen firsthand how Mr. Bush can turn on the charm when he needs to. In his 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush started off so high in the polls that he was contemptuous of journalists, treating us like French presidents. Then he got walloped in the New Hampshire primary, and all of a sudden he began charming the socks off reporters. It's time to try the same trick with six billion foreigners.

Oh, and my mission was a partial success (click her for a multimedia view of my trip). After all those street interviews, Mr. Bush, I finally found you two potential recruits for Iraq: Vytantas Benokraitis and Gediminas Bagdanavicius, both students at Vilnius University. There is hope.

E-mail: nicholas@nytimes.com