Lebanon and the Future of the UN

The world is depending on the UN to contain an explosive conflict that, in terms of its global impact on stability, oil, terrorism, and non-proliferation is higher stakes than Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, or any other prior UN mission.
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Just as the deployment of a UN-sponsored force will be critical to the future of Lebanon, the same mission could be a cross-roads for the UN. The UN has in recent years come under heavy criticism in the US for corruption, ineffectiveness and an unwillingness-cum-inability to reform. On the other side, the organization's boosters point to the flagging US support for the UN as a key detriment to the world body's efficacy. The Lebanon mission may put these competing claims to the test.

The mobilization of the mission is getting more complicated by the day. While France had originally signaled willingness to serve as the backbone of the force, this week they revealed that they only intend to send an incremental 200 troops, a fraction of the 15,000 that will ultimately be needed. France has a well-trained and respected military with deep ties to the region, making this a heavy blow to the nascent mission.

On Sunday Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that Israel will not accept participation in the mission of troops from countries that do not recognize Israel. This would exclude Bangladesh, which is currently the leading troop contributor to UN missions worldwide, as well as Indonesia and Malaysia, both of which had already stepped forward as willing to send in men. Meanwhile Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has said his country will reject involvement of countries that have military ties to Israel, a ban that could potentially exclude Turkey and India, two other potentially important prospects.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire is in trouble on the ground. Partly due to the week-long delay in deploying additional international troops, skirmishes between the parties are already breaking out.

There's reason to believe the resolution of these issues may matter as much for the future of the UN as it does for Lebanon. Why?

- This is a crisis that only the UN can solve - Without a robust peacekeeping force in place, there seems little question that the conflict in Southern Lebanon will flare up again quickly and, particularly given the participation of Iran and Syria, destabilize the region. For reasons described here, no one else can or will do the job.

- The stakes are high - The world is depending on the UN to contain an explosive conflict that, in terms of its global impact on stability, oil, terrorism, and non-proliferation is higher stakes than Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, or any other prior UN mission. Had the UN remained in Iraq that mission would have been of comparable import, but even there the UN was not slated to play the primary military role they will in Lebanon.

- The UN needs to demonstrate that its ready and willing to operate with robust rules of engagement - The reason France, Germany and others are citing for their reluctance to commit large numbers of troops to Lebanon is concern that current negotiations over the mandate of an expanded UNIFIL do not confer the mission with sufficiently broad and forceful rules of engagement to enable them to pacify Southern Lebanon, contain Hezbollah, and stanch the inflow of weapons through Lebanon's borders. This is a legitimate concern, and was at the root of the UN's historic catastrophe at Srebrenica, a humiliation that set back UN peacekeeping for well over a decade by seeming to prove that the organization was incapable of peace enforcement under tough conditions (though its hard to say whether even a clear remit to use force would have worked given conditions in Bosnia).

Now the UN has another chance. It needs to show that its ready to mandate, man, and equip a true military mission, as well as wade through the minefield of attendant politics, including what happens if UN peacekeepers kill, what happens if Hezbollah retaliates against a troop contributing country, and what happens if the parties resume open warfare. If it can deliver, respect for the world body will soar. If it fails, it won't get another chance for another decade or more, and global opinion will once again focus on the UN's limitations, rather than its capabilities. No one can say with certainty whether the UN (or, for that matter, any conceivable global organization), is up to the job.

- The UN has to prove its capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time - As if it weren't enough to try to keep Hezbollah and Israel at arms-length, the prospective UN mission in Southern Lebanon will also have to coordinate a humanitarian assistance and reconstruction effort ambitious and efficient enough to compete with what Hezbollah itself can mount on Iran's dime. Otherwise the UN risks winning the war but losing the peace in that if Hezbollah uses the next few years to increase its political capital among the Lebanese population, the short-term success of a peacekeeping operation is unlikely to keep the region stable in the long haul. Humanitarian and reconstruction are areas where the UN excels, but carrying these tasks out in combination with an assertive military mission is something the organization has rarely if ever had to tackle.

-Its a test of whether the UN's supporters are willing put their troops where their mouths are - Dozens of countries, including the European Union, have been critical of the US's failure to more fully support the UN, both politically and financially. Now that the UN badly needs them, it remains to be seen whether they will deliver and the early signs are not auspicious. While its fair for countries to hesitate to put troops in harms way under terms of engagement they know are flawed, as with most everything else the UN does, the decision on how to mandate the Lebanon force will be made by the organization's members, not Secretariat bureaucrats. So if the French are demurring because they don't like the rules of engagement, their stated belief in a strong UN means that they need to negotiate better rules, not walk away. That said, I happen to think that, provided the parties concluded it would help not hurt, the US should also be prepared to put in at least a token troop contribution. As strapped and over-extended as we are, we've still got large numbers of troops stationed in Europe, Japan and elsewhere. Freeing up a few hundred would be worth it, if it stimulated others to do more. The worst, most predictable mistake would be to launch this mission with inadequate troop commitments and face a failed counterterrorism scenario. Coming while the US is still mired in Iraq, that would be an error for which the UN would not be forgiven.

Suzanne Nossel posts regularly at www.democracyarsenal.org

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