Reality Check: What International Force In Lebanon?

For all this talk of a robust international military presence in southern Lebanon, none is going to materialize.


Article created by The Century Foundation.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and fifteen other foreign ministers depart from a stalemated meeting in Rome on shutting down the Israel-Lebanon war, the air is still hot with proposals for a robust Western military force that would deploy to Lebanon to back a ceasefire, keep the Israelis out, and disarm Hezbollah paramilitaries.

Such a force isn’t going to materialize.

The Bush administration was initially cool to an international force when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and British prime minister Tony Blair proposed it last Monday. But Washington is beginning to see an international force as perhaps the only face-saving vehicle for Israel to step back from its escalating military campaign in Lebanon—a campaign that is evidently achieving little militarily but is undeniably generating a powerful global backlash against both Israel and the United States. The prospect of a new Israeli “security zone” in Southern Lebanon may only exacerbate that reality.

The Americans, of course, would prefer it to be a NATO force, but without U.S. troops—in other words, a European force under Euro-American command. Many Europeans fear that a “made in USA” NATO label might prove fatal in Lebanon’s volatile environment, inciting violent resistance from the country’s Shiite Muslims.

But the real problem is that Europeans simply do not have combat troops to commit, given their existing deployments in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Most importantly, none of the European governments is prepared to put its troops into a shooting war against a well-armed Hezbollah resistance whose Arab street “cred” has been built on defying Israelis, not knuckling under to them.

If the highly motivated Israelis cannot disarm Hezbollah’s guerrillas with a furious military operation, the equally alien Europeans cannot expect to succeed—any more than American combat troops can disarm Iraqis. Not surprisingly, Europeans make plain they will only put their troops into Lebanon as peace-keepers, not war-fighters.

In other words, the Europeans are prepared to put in troops to supersede the existing U.N. force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) only if it is essentially just a larger UNIFIL. And even UNIFIL exposes them to serious casualties, as Tuesday’s strike on its outpost at Khiam reminds us.

The task of finally reasserting the Lebanese government’s authority over all of Lebanon—for the first time since the country became an unwilling refuge for Palestinian guerrillas after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war—cannot be achieved by Western arms, just as it could not be achieved by Ariel Sharon’s invasion in 1982. The only international forces that can effectively support the Lebanese government, build up its army, and secure the transfer to it of the sophisticated weaponry that Hezbollah militias have acquired will almost surely have to be Arab.

In short, while a Western force would be a lightning rod for murderous attacks by Islamic jihadists promised a quick path to paradise, Arab troops would not.

So the robust core of an international force in Lebanon would probably best come from the Arab world—perhaps from North Africa as far west as Morocco and Algeria, and probably from nearby countries like Egypt, Jordan, and perhaps Syria. Yes, even Syria: Damascus almost certainly needs to have a stake in this settlement, and a tiny Syrian contingent embedded in a large Arab force might salve many wounds. The League of Arab States also can take the lead role, in conjunction with the Arab forces, in facilitating the Lebanese political dialogue.

Arab forces alone cannot be sufficient, however. Israel and, most of all, Lebanon’s one million Christians will want a guarantee that Islamists cannot hijack the country. After all, Saudi soldiers steeped in Wahhabi puritanism are likely to be scandalized by Christian Arabs’ values.

So onto a robust Arab core it will likely be necessary to graft a wider range of militarily capable forces, ideally from the non-Arab Mediterranean—especially Turkey, Italy, France, and Spain. These forces might not be the ones deployed into villages riddled with Hezbollah militants, but they could provide a soothing security presence in less volatile areas and the logistical support for their Arab partners.

The European Union’s foreign minister, Javier Solana, has advanced the idea of a mixed European-Arab force, and significantly, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has left the door open to one. But there is one last conceptual hurdle that has yet to be cleared: the most logical aegis for an international force composed of Arab and European contingents is the much maligned United Nations.

Certainly, a robust Security Council mandate under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter is needed, no matter what multilateral organization or ad hoc group of countries takes charge of the force. But beyond legal authority, the United Nations has unique assets in heading such a mission.

First, the United Nations has a funding mechanism to cover the costs of an operation. All nations have to share the force assessments, in accordance with their relative wealth (in the U.S. case, 27 percent; the E.U.’s, 38 percent). In a NATO, E.U., or Arab League operation, those countries putting troops into Lebanon would also have the privilege of paying the expenses themselves—while the rest of the world freeloads. Reliable funding is one reason why U.N. operations have proved sustainable over time, while ad hoc operations dissolve as one country or another tires of the task and deserts.

Second, a U.N. operation guarantees input from major stakeholders. The United States could be frozen out of influencing an E.U. or Arab League operation; Russia and the Arab world would be excluded from a NATO-run operation. Moreover, if one troop contributor wearies of the responsibility in a particular mission, somebody—the secretary-general—has the job of finding replacements.

Third, in a mission as complex as transferring weapons and personnel from the control of militia commanders to the Lebanese army, unity of command is necessary. Having parallel forces that only intermittently communicate with each other can be a recipe for disaster. Fielding an operation with separate reporting lines for Arab and non-Arab contingents would be especially risky in a case where a determined spoiler might play one off against another.

To minimize friction and clashes, the international community needs to emphasize that the new force aims to facilitate an elected Lebanese government regaining control over its sovereign territory and achieving stability, in full implementation of the provisions of Security Council resolution 1559.

It is a sign of how far the Middle East has changed that Israelis can now view the prospect of Egyptian and Jordanian troops on their northern border with equanimity, even reassurance. It also suggests how, out of the wreckage of the current war, Israel’s negotiation of peace treaties with its eastern and northern neighbors can at last give full effect to the promise of a permanent peace that the Security Council demanded nearly forty years ago in resolutions 242 and 338.