When the refreshingly blunt-spoken deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, was asked for the umpteenth time on Sunday whether the United States might target any other terrorist-supporting countries besides Afghanistan, he responded with this curious formulation: If "the coalition felt it was necessary to go after terrorist groups in other countries, this would be a matter for the coalition to discuss among themselves." Well, thanks. Maybe when "the coalition" finishes discussing the matter, someone will let us Americans know what they decide.

Bismarck said every alliance has a horse and a rider, and one should endeavor to be the rider. The same goes for international coalitions. You're either leading them or they're leading you. Of course, we're all interested in what "the coalition" feels may be necessary. We'd like to have as many nations on our side as possible. But with many thousands of Americans dead, and who knows how many more at risk, Washington ought to be making its own decisions about the war on terrorism.

This is not the voice of unilateralism speaking. Contrary to fashionable wisdom, the debate today is not between multilateralism and unilateralism. It's between effective multilateralism and paralytic multilateralism.

Everyone agrees the model for effective multilateralism was the assembling of the Gulf War coalition a decade ago. But some seem to have forgotten how that coalition came into being. It was Step Two, not Step One. First, the United States determined on its own the core strategic objective: to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Then and only then did the United States start assembling a coalition of nations able and willing to help.

It was a policy of multilateralism, but preceded, as effective multilateralism must always be, by a unilateral determination to act. Bush didn't begin by taking a poll of Arab monarchies. If he had, Saddam Hussein would still be in Kuwait. The Saudi royal family's first, quite selfish impulse was to let Saddam keep Kuwait and to draw the line of containment at their own border. Jordan's King Hussein, then our closest friend in the Arab world, sided openly with Iraq.

In the end, Bush had to talk the Saudis into what seemed to them a much riskier strategy. His own steely determination stiffened their spine. But he had to go ahead without Jordan, whose spine was immune to stiffening. Bush succeeded anyway, because he had decided, very publicly, what he wanted to do and then mustered a "coalition of the willing" to help him do it. And guess what. Had he decided to go on to Baghdad, Bush would have succeeded in that mission, too, and today we wouldn't all be wondering whether anthrax spores spreading around the country were developed in one of Saddam's laboratories.

Contrast Bush's success with President Clinton's failed effort to win allied support for a policy of "lift and strike" in Bosnia in 1993 -- the case study in paralytic multilateralism. Instead of leading the alliance, Clinton sent Warren Christopher to Europe to "consult" with the reluctant allies -- before Clinton had staked out a clear position of his own. As David Halberstam writes in "War in a Time of Peace," the Europeans "were accustomed to someone like George Shultz or James Baker telling them in a nice way that brooked little disagreement what the United States of America intended to do." Instead, Christopher's "consultation" signaled that Clinton wasn't serious. And probably he wasn't. In fact, some suspect Clinton counted on European opposition to beat down the more hawkish voices in his own administration. Clinton had assembled, in effect, a coalition of the unwilling.

It's not clear yet which model the Bush administration is following. President Bush said loud and clear on Sept. 24 that the United States would go after other terrorist groups and states that harbor them, beyond Afghanistan and beyond bin Laden and al Qaeda. The letter Ambassador John Negroponte delivered to the U.N. Security Council last week stated that the United States may be compelled in the interest of self-defense to take military actions against other states beyond Afghanistan. But now Armitage says the decision about whether to go after other terrorist groups and other states will be made not by the president but by "the coalition."

That's a scary thought. "The coalition" is an awfully nebulous entity. Great Britain and Canada are part of it, but so are Yemen and Egypt. Lately Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is looking a little unhinged, ranting about the Israeli "dictatorship." Is he really going to be part of the basic decision-making process? Does Armitage mean that, before we contemplate wider military action, we will have to ask the Saudi royal family if it feels wider action is "necessary"? The Saudis haven't even decided yet that it is "necessary" to cut off all funding to terrorists who fatten on Saudi bank accounts. They're not even sure it's "necessary" to keep fighting in Afghanistan. And if the United States ever discovers Iraq is involved in the latest attacks, will we need to ask the Jordanian king if he feels an invasion of Iraq is necessary? The answer will be the same as it was in 1990: not necessary.

It's important to have partners in this struggle. But a little sober realism is in order, too. At the end of the day, there are a limited number of nations we can trust to look out for our most vital interests, and an even smaller number strong enough and stable enough to be of real help. If we make our goals and strategy plain, those close allies will likely join us, in Afghanistan and beyond, to do what we think is necessary to win the war. But if we let the coalition of the unwilling call the shots, they'll gladly drag us down to defeat, everywhere.

Reprinted with permission from the Washington Post.