European Force for Lebanon Is a Feeble Mission

The Continental Divide

By Eric Frey

Published September 01, 2006, issue of September 01, 2006.
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With European countries preparing to supply more than half of the 15,000 troops bound to keep the peace in southern Lebanon, the Old World is embarking on one of its biggest military endeavours since 1945. The Lebanon mission will formally be under the United Nations umbrella, but European leaders see it as a chance to prove that Europe can hold its own as a global actor, and perhaps even become a counterweight to American dominance.

But despite all their good intentions and the need for a strong external force to keep Israel and Hezbollah apart, the chances are slim that European troops will leave Lebanon with feelings of pride and satisfaction.

True, France, Italy and their European Union partners are better suited for the difficult mission than most other nations. Lebanese and other Arabs would never accept American troops as a neutral party, and blue helmets from most Third World countries have a reputation of incompetence, corruption and worse.

Britain, with an excellent track record in military interventions like Sierra Leone, might have been able to do the job in Lebanon, had Tony Blair not already had his hands full in southern Iraq. But France, too, has plenty of experience in keeping apart warring factions in far-off countries. And Italy, poised to take over the leadership role next February, is eager to show that its military has improved since Mussolini bungled the invasion of Greece.

Moreover, French president Jacques Chirac and Italy’s prime minister, Romano Prodi, correctly insisted that the U.N. grant their soldiers the right to an assertive use of force in the pursuit of their mission. They remembered the shameful episodes of the U.N. mission in Bosnia a decade ago, when British and French peacekeepers were taken hostage in Bosnia and Dutch blue helmets looked on helplessly as Serb forces overran Srebrenica and proceeded to massacre an estimated 8,000 men. And Belgium, another country sending troops to Lebanon, is well aware that its soldiers were in charge of keeping the peace in Rwanda but fled just as the Hutu massacre of the Tutsi began in 1994.

Each of these countries individually has the military capacity to patrol southern Lebanon effectively, to stop arms smuggling from Syria and perhaps even push the disarmament of Hezbollah. But this is not a national army, it is a multilateral force. And while the E.U. has genuine power when it comes to economic policy, security remains firmly in the realm of the nation state. It can only act as a coordinator, helping to find the lowest common denominator. And warfare by committee, as experience and common sense suggests, is bound to fail.

None of the European countries has a strong national interest in shaping the future of the region. France, with its longstanding ties to Lebanon, would be in the best position to take the lead, but Chirac’s erratic and often irrational leadership style, demonstrated again through his recent dithering over French troop numbers, stands in the way. Any change in strategy or even operational tactics would therefore require the consent of all countries involved, even if circumstances call for such a move. That will limit the flexibility and the effectiveness of the force.

What’s more, a wide swath of the populations of European countries sending troops simply would not stomach a high number of casualties among its soldiers, and would immediately call for a pullout from Lebanon if they got involved in serious fighting. Americans know this all too well: The Reagan administration pulled out of the very same country in 1983 after a suicide bomb killed 241 American servicemen.

So the primary goal of the troops will be to stay out of trouble and to avoid upsetting Israel, Hezbollah and Syria. Such a mission is probably sufficient for supervising a stable cease-fire, as has existed on the Golan Heights for the past four decades. But it would fall apart if Hezbollah started seeking new arms and Israel resumed its efforts to weaken the Shiite group militarily. The weak Lebanese army, for its part, is unlikely to receive effective help from its European friends as it attempts to re-establish real sovereignty over the region south of the Litani River.

The peacekeepers, in short, cannot compensate for a serious political effort to resolve the Lebanese quagmire. Outside mediation on a political level would be truly helpful, and given Washington’s paralysis on Middle East policy, there might be room for European intervention. But the main burden will lie on the warring parties to find a way out, mostly on Israel, which needs to design a strategy to make Syria interested in a settlement and to open some form of dialogue with Hezbollah.

As for the E.U.’s dreams of global military power, the time is not ripe for more than a token effort at international good citizenship. It takes true national sovereignty and a strong executive office to lead a country into a war-like situation — something the E.U. lacks for now and the foreseeable future, perhaps forever.

But as America’s war in Iraq has shown, the ability to project military power in faraway places does not always lead to the desired political outcome. So, a feeble European peacekeeping mission, in fact, may do more for stability in the Middle East than a bungled American invasion.

Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.

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