Analysis: A nice idea in theory

NATO sources call an international presence in Lebanon 'a bit of a tough sell.'

NATO plane 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
NATO plane 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
Although US and European officials agreed in Rome on Wednesday on the creation of a multinational force to oversee a post-cease-fire era in southern Lebanon, and although Israel has put aside longstanding reservations over such a force, the international community is showing acute signs of cold feet about contributing the necessary soldiers. Given what is perceived in Jerusalem to have been the abject failure of UNIFIL to prevent Hizbullah exploiting the vacuum left by Israel's 2000 withdrawal from its "security zone" in the south, Israel has indicated that it would prefer a NATO-led coalition to deploy rather than another UN variant. But while NATO sources told The Jerusalem Post this week that NATO "has unmatched experience in conducting complex, robust multi-national military operations," they also stressed that countries would be disinclined to dispatch their troops without the clearest idea of the mandate, the duration of the mission and, crucially, "the support of the relevant regional parties." On the eve of the Rome Conference, moreover, NATO spokesman James Appathurai noted that no formal or even informal request had been received at NATO to begin any kind political discussion or military planning for an international role in Lebanon. As European Union officials and diplomats met Thursday to try to pull together plans for a force, it was plain that many nations remained cool to the idea, with only Germany, Italy and non-EU member Turkey voicing lukewarm support for contributing to any mission, The Associated Press reported. Officials from Finland, which holds the rotating EU presidency, were leading high-level meetings in Helsinki and at EU headquarters in Brussels on the issue and hoped to have some kind of result in time for a meeting of EU foreign ministers next Tuesday. Israel may favor a NATO role, but French President Jacques Chirac, for one, has publicly rejected that notion, saying in an interview on Wednesday that NATO is seen in the region as "the armed wing of the West." Israel's hope is that an international force could take shape as a complement to military action, ultimately securing some of the goals of the current Israeli action against Hizbullah - notably assisting in the deployment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon, the disarming of Hizbullah and the prevention of its resupply. However, as the Rome parley proved, the international community cannot even agree on whether to push for a cease-fire at this stage. Most European nations want the fighting to stop now - which would leave Hizbullah battered but defiant. The United States wants to give Israel more time to disable Hizbullah. The NATO sources noted that the alliance has deployed substantial contingents in trouble spots such as Kosovo (60,000 troops) and Bosnia (50,000). But unless nations contemplating participation get answers to those basic questions of mandate, duration and the likely regional climate in which the force would deploy, the sources said, they would be disinclined to consent. "There's no doubting the preparedness of NATO to tough it out in a hostile neighborhood," one source said. "NATO takes losses almost every day in Afghanistan, where it is actually expanding its mission, to establish conditions for the development of the country, to help the Afghani government govern and to train its army. "And member countries are aware that this [the Middle East] is a vital strategic region. No one wants to see it get worse. There is a clear humanitarian challenge and goal," he added. "But this a bit of a tough sell. Contributing nations want to know that there's an exit." None of this would be debated publicly, the sources indicated. Rather, if behind-the-scenes contacts established that there was no will among NATO members to assemble a force, no formal request for the establishment of such a force would ever be issued and no "force generation" process begun. NATO has no forces of its own. It generally operates under UN mandate, with members and partners putting troops at its disposal, and under its authority, for specific missions.