In the Gulf, a Coalition of the Floating

NPR senior news Analyst Ted Koppel has just returned from the Middle East, where he found the coalition of the willing — at sea. Pakistanis, Italians and others are working with the United States to protect shipping routes — and the flow of oil. Robert Siegel speaks with Koppel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One of the more tendentious phrases of the war in Iraq, is coalition forces. The U.S. typically underscores the multinational character of the intervention in Iraq. In fact, while there are about 8,000 British troops in Iraq, U.S. forces number 130,000, and all the other members of the coalition account for a little more than 10,000. And some members of what Washington calls the coalition of the willing, Spain, Japan, for example, have very publicly announced their withdrawals. Well, NPR senior News Analyst Ted Koppel is just back from the Middle East, and he has found where the coalition of the willing is not bailing out but, in fact, it is sailing on. Ted Koppel, where it that?

TED KOPPEL reporting:

Well you put it extremely well, Robert, because they are sailing on quite literally, in the Persian Gulf and through the Straits of Hormuz and into the Arabian Sea, and they are doing it in great numbers: 45 ships from, I don't know, at least 7 or 8 different countries, including the Italians, the French, the Germans, the Australians, and out in the Arabian Sea, even the Pakistanis.

SEIGEL: Now are they sailing under some single, consolidated command?

KOPPEL: Yes. They have one these wonderful acronyms called NAVCENT, the Combined Maritime Forces, which are commended by a U.S. Vice Admiral.

SEIGEL: And the mission of NAVCENT?

KOPPEL: The mission is not quite as clearly spelled out as you might hope. They are obviously there, in one sense, to support military activities in Iraq, but it seems to me that what is holding that coalition, and in the Gulf it really is a coalition of the willing, together is the need of the oil-consuming world to make sure that that 55-percent of the world's oil consumption which originates in the Persian Gulf actually makes it through the Straits Hormuz and to an oil-hungry Europe and China and India and Pakistan and, of course, North America.

SEIGEL: Now, is this maritime mission strictly limited to Iraq and its oil exploits, or is the presence of the same vessels in the Persian Gulf, also sending a message, say, to neighboring Iran.

KOPPEL: Clearly, it is intended to do a number of things. It is intended to provide support to the military operations that are going on in Iraq. It is intended to send a message to Iran. But curiously enough, at the moment, the one mission that it seems to be accomplishing most successfully, is to keep fishing dows and other small vessels that are operating in the Gulf away from the oil platforms, and that it does, essentially, with sailors who are sitting on deck manning 50-caliber machine guns.

SEIGEL: Well, you've witnessed a coalition of the willing that appears to be operating at sea, while the coalition on the ground in Iraq has been, rather publicly, disintegrating over the months.

KOPPEL: And I think there's a point to be made there, Robert, and that is the strategy in Iraq itself, our main reasons for being there, have shifted, obviously, over the last few years. They've gone from the weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to be there; to the need to create a democracy, a functioning democracy in Iraq; and of course, the anti-terrorist goal of our forces over there. None of those issues has served to hold that coalition of the willing together. But the oil-consuming nations in the world consume 85 million barrels of oil a day. The oil-producing nations in the world produce 85 million barrels a day. And as I said earlier, 55 percent of all that oil comes out of the Persian Gulf region. That seems to be an issue on which there is absolute agreement, and where the coalition is genuinely willing.

SEIGEL: I'm just curious. When you look elsewhere around the world at, say, the attempts at achieving some kind of solidarity over the issue of, say, North Korea, which we've heard about so much in recent days and in today's program. The threat of a few new long-range missiles, is it potentially as galvanizing as the need to see all those gallons of oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf?

KOPPEL: I don't think so, Robert, and my reason for not thinking so is that it is much more difficult to come up with a solution, both as simple and as effective as the ships that are sailing in and around the Persian Gulf. The last thing in the world that any of the nations who are confronting the North Korean threat at the moment, including the United States, want, is an armed conflict with that country.

SEIGEL: Well Ted, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Robert.

SEIGEL: That's NPR's senior News Analyst Ted Koppel.

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