As States Discuss Outlines of Force for Lebanon, the Options Seem Grim

Nations that would join a multinational force to patrol the Israel-Lebanon cease-fire face what appears to be a grim Hobson’s choice: Join, and face the likelihood of catastrophe; decline, and face the likelihood of catastrophe. The arguments over whether and how to expand the size and capabilities of the hapless UNIFIL force currently in place have continued for more than a week since the guns fell silent, raising questions not only about the viability of a peaceful northern border for Israel but the very effectiveness of the international community in an increasingly volatile world.

President Bush said bluntly this week that time was running out for allied nations to step into the breach in Lebanon, where Israel and Hezbollah already are accusing one another of violating the cease-fire.

“The international community must now designate the leadership of this international force, give it robust rules of engagement and deploy it as quickly as possible to secure the peace,” Bush said in a news conference Monday.

The problem for countries that would contribute troops is that, absent a clear mandate, it could be headed for failure — which would be equally dangerous for the cease-fire.

“When a force is sent without a very well-defined mission, without suitable resources or without adequate resources, things can take a disastrous turn, including for the soldiers we send,” said French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

France was a driving force behind the cease-fire resolution that ended the war and was expected to take the lead in any peacekeeping force. But France’s subsequent dithering over whether or not to spearhead the force led Italy this week to offer to lead, and to contribute 3,000 of the force’s projected 15,000 troops.

The loss of the French nonetheless represents a blow: With a colonial history in Lebanon, France was likeliest to earn the trust of the Lebanese. Additionally, French troops have experience in peace enforcement, to this day carrying out such missions in former colonies in West and North Africa, albeit with little media coverage.

If a multinational force fails, the consequences will reverberate beyond the collapse of the cease-fire, military experts say.

The world will closely monitor the success of peacekeepers enforcing a cease-fire between the army of a sovereign state and a militia that answers to no power but itself, since such militias proliferate in Iraq, Sudan, the Caucasus and elsewhere.

“If this expanded force fails here, the precedent it sets is that people will expect similar efforts to fail indefinitely in the future,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

On the other hand, stepping away from Lebanon or even equivocating too long also could have far-reaching repercussions.

A failure to participate and the devolution of Lebanon into war could jeopardize transatlantic unity, Michaela Hertkorn argued in a paper for the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, a Washington think tank that promotes German-American relations.

“Do Europeans still have cold feet, as soon as ‘the going gets rough?’ ” she asked.

The Bush administration believes the future of Lebanon is at stake, said Shimon Peres, the Israeli deputy prime minister who met last week with top U.S. officials.

“They believe the battle now is for the future of Lebanon, whether it is an Iranian Lebanon or a Lebanese Lebanon,” Peres said, referring to Hezbollah’s Iranian patrons.

Peres has lobbied hard for the quick deployment of a multinational force. In long telephone conversations with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and French President Jacques Chirac, Peres has emphasized the importance to Lebanon’s survival of backup for Lebanese army forces that are taking up positions alongside Hezbollah in the South.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora “knows it is ‘to be or not to be’ if the Lebanese army does not go south,” Peres said. “He is lost.”

Six former U.S. officials deeply involved in past peacekeeping efforts met last week at a panel sponsored by the U.S. Institute for Peace and outlined the parameters for a successful multinational force.

“Demobilization tracking mechanisms are necessary,” said Mike Bailey, who as a former U.S. Defense Department official supervised disarmament in East Timor, Cambodia, Iraq and Haiti. “Post-demobilization disarmament mechanisms are useful, such as weapons turn-in, weapons for development, et cetera. Concurrently, steps should be taken to prevent a gap in public security. And as we’re seeing now, the process must address irregular forces and weapons.”

The problem, the experts agreed, is that Hezbollah does not want to be disarmed.

“The key is, if the two parties want to keep the peace, a U.N. peacekeeping force can be very effective,” said Samuel Lewis, the U.S. ambassador to Israel in the early 1980s, when the United States helped establish a highly successful multinational force to patrol the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. “If either one of them doesn’t, it’s a very nasty job to give anybody.”

It doesn’t help that the U.N. Security Council resolution mandating the expansion of UNIFIL is so vague, said James Dobbins, a former State Department official who supervised peacekeeping in the Balkans, Haiti, Somalia and Afghanistan.

The resolution “does appear to authorize the use of force, but it authorizes it under an article of the U.N. charter that doesn’t authorize the U.N. to use force,” Dobbins said. “And read carefully, the only authorization to use force is to use force at the request of the government of Lebanon. Therefore the force, to the extent it chooses to do so, may use force when requested by the government of Lebanon — and otherwise not at all under any circumstances, except for its own protection.”

Yet force is precisely what is needed to disarm Hezbollah, a crucial step for the cease-fire’s viability, Bailey said.

“Hezbollah retains the initiative. The U.N. is left in a difficult position with no exit strategy, no chance to complete the transformation of Hezbollah,” Bailey said.

He outlined the hazards of avoiding disarmament and demobilization.

“Weak or no trust in the process,” he intoned, “difficulty for humanitarian organizations operating and then, moreover, return to hostilities is almost certain.”

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