The US and its allies are heading for a debacle in southern Lebanon, seemingly determined to repeat peacekeeping errors of the past.
Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, supports a “robust” international force for southern Lebanon. Her advisers have floated proposals for a deployment of 10,000 to 20,000 troops, whose mission would be to disarm Hizbollah, secure southern Lebanon and train the Lebanese army.
The Bush administration is succumbing to the temptation to throw a peacekeeping force at an intractable political problem. Peacekeeping deployments can and have contributed to lasting peace in such places as El Salvador, Mozambique and Eastern Slavonia. But peacekeeping missions with unrealistic mandates are doomed to fail or, at the very least, to disappoint. That was the experience in Somalia in 1992 and 1993, and in Bosnia in 1994. It has been the problem in Lebanon since 1978, when the so-called United Nations “Interim” Force—Unifil—was given the unrealistic and hauntingly familiar mission to “confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon; restore international peace and security; and assist the government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area”.
Even a much larger deployment to replace Unifil, whose mandate was extended temporarily last week, would be unable to restrain Hizbollah, just as the Israelis have yet to curb the barrage of rocket attacks, which continues three weeks into the incursion. Unable to prevent attacks, a new peacekeeping force would be likely to find itself caught up in the fighting, like the four unarmed UN military observers killed a week ago, or behind Israeli lines where Unifil forces found themselves from 1982 to 1985. The longer international troops occupy this space, the more likely they are to generate resentment and hostility and the greater the risk that they will become Hizbollah victims, like the 241 US marines and 58 French paratroopers in 1983. A bigger UN force that is detached from a larger political process will not be any more effective at nullifying Hizbollah.
Lebanon favours sending in an enlarged Unifil force as a buffer in the south. Conceivably, a UN blue-helmeted force would be perceived as more neutral and, therefore, a less attractive target than a French- or Nato-led force. But that was not the case for the UN mission in Iraq. The UN compound in Baghdad was bombed in August 2003, an attack generally attributed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killing the secretary-general’s special envoy and effectively driving the UN out of Iraq.
The iron law for any successful peacekeeping operation is to have a clear mission and realisable goals. In UN-speak, that means establishing a force, whether under UN command or led by others, with a realistic mandate and the capabilities to match.
In the case of Lebanon, two things are required if a difficult mission is not inevitably to become a disastrous one.
First, it should be led by a militarily capable nation, such as France, or group of nations, such as the European Union, but not by the UN itself. UN peacekeeping operations can succeed when they operate in relative peace and quiet; for example, when deployed to support a formal peace agreement between rival groups or states. But, they are ill-suited to confront serious military challenges, as any force in southern Lebanon certainly would. Only a highly competent force operating with the prestige of a lead nation can deter and, if necessary, confront challenges by Hizbollah or other terrorist groups, which will be tempted to test the will of an international force. The UN cannot muster a significant peacekeeping force in Lebanon for “at best, months,” according to its top peacekeeping official. If UN cover is necessary to win Lebanese support, it should be no more than a cloak for a French or European-led operation.
Second, a peacekeeping force cannot succeed without political backing by Arab states (such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) and by the EU and the US. Arab pressure will be essential in curbing Hizbollah or other attacks on an international force or on Israel. European and US backing will be needed if the force is to retain its credibility when it is tested and when it falters, as it inevitably will.
The role of an international force in Lebanon is fundamentally political. The force needs to be seen as advancing an overall political approach which, realistically, must include the affected states in the region, including Syria and Iran. An international force dispatched to Lebanon can buy time and create political space. It cannot win an unwinnable war and, if dispatched to do so, is doomed to fail.
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