- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

The “coalition of the willing” in Iraq isn’t going anywhere. It can’t, at least not until the insurgency in Iraq is ended and a democratic Iraqi government capable of defending itself takes root. Still, Hungary’s recent announcement that it plans to phase out troop contingents there shows that some governments susceptible to domestic political pressure will buckle and phase out their commitment to Iraq. It’s too bad Hungary is poised to opt out of the Iraqi security elements of the relationship. Dropping out of the coalition is no way to show commitment to U.S.-led efforts to promote democracy and prosperity.

Pressure from key political figures, and the Iraq war’s overall unpopularity, are reportedly what forced the hand of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany’s Socialist-Liberal coalition government. The war had ended Peter Medgyessy’s tenure as prime minister this summer, according to Hungary watchers, even though the force in Iraq numbers only 300 and has so far suffered one fatality. Now, explained Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz, “If we decide to stay we would create serious domestic political conflict since most people would disagree.” The current plan is to pull out troops in March, after the elections. Even this could be undermined by Hungary’s hostile parliament, which may demand an earlier pullout.

The good news is that Hungary’s withdrawal seems unlikely to have much effect on the ground in Iraq. The United Kingdom, Italy, South Korea, Poland, Ukraine, Australia and Japan are the mainstays of the coalition, with about 9,000, 3,000, 2,800, 2,500, 1,600, 1,000 and 900 troops deployed, respectively. Denmark has also affirmed its committment to stay, as has Romania.

The bad news is that the Netherlands, with the seventh-largest contingent in Iraq, has also announced plans to withdraw. It follows the lead of Spain, the Philippines and a handful of Central American countries. Poland, too, has announced an eventual and gradual force reduction.

Reacting to the news, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher emphasized the coalition’s flexibility. “Some people arrive and some people go and some people expand and some people cut down,” he said Wednesday. But Mr. Boucher should also be attuned to the reality that some European nations may lack the resolve to stick it out in Iraq. As a State Department memo leaked to the Boston Globe last month speculated about Poland’s likely force reduction, “this could be the beginning of the end of the significant European contribution” when it comes to Iraq. If it is, the United States will be prepared to pick up the slack. But all the worse for Europe’s global pretentions, and for the international opportunities its new democracies like Hungary may enjoy.

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