Analysis: Talk of a multinational force is premature

The most likely countries and coalitions, such as NATO, have already passed the buck.

NATO IDF 248.88 (photo credit: IDF [file])
NATO IDF 248.88
(photo credit: IDF [file])
A multinational force for southern Lebanon has now become an almost foregone conclusion. Even after meetings in Rome between the United States, European Union, United Nations and Arab governments broke down with no agreement on how to move forward to end the conflict, there was consensus on this one issue; eventually some kind of international force would take control of the region. But speaking to experts on peacekeeping and former UN diplomats and staff, a different consensus emerges: for a plethora of reasons, talk of a multinational force is highly premature. "It's sort of just by default that this has become the option everyone is talking about, not really because it's the next best step," says Michael Doyle,a former aide to Kofi Annan and the co-author of Making War and Building Peace, a history of the UN's peacekeeping missions. "Everyone likes the idea of an international force, because Israel doesn't want to reoccupy Lebanon, and no one thinks Lebanon is capable of securing its own borders, and therefore what other alternatives have you got?" But according to Doyle and others, a multinational force - even a robust one that is only nominally a UN force, but is actually commanded by NATO or a "coalition of the willing" - will not have any effective purpose in the region until there is a political agreement between the fighting parties. UN forces have a good record in situations where they are standing between two belligerents who have either accepted some political compromise or are tired of fighting. This is not the case in Lebanon, where Hizbullah is not likely to voluntarily lay down their arms. Since it's clear that no real political settlement with the militants is possible, these experts are skeptical that this critical first step can be achieved. "If there was first a political step that could produce an agreement," Doyle says. "If that was the case, many people believe a robust force could implement that. But the problem with that scenario, which is the one that is gathering a lot of support, is that no one can envision step one, which is a political agreement between Israel and Hizbullah." Minus this first step, the only other option is to have this multinational force enter the fray while hostilities are still ongoing, using force to impose peace. This would be unprecedented for UN missions in the Middle East. Of the five missions that have been formed since UNTSO in 1948 - which was also the very first UN peacekeeping mission - all have been under the authority of Chapter VI of the UN Charter, which does not give the authority to use force to separate the warring parties. If a multinational force was to enter the region now, with the goal of actively stopping the fighting, it would most certainly have to be under Chapter VII, which would entitle it to enforce quiet militarily. The hope would be that the very presence of thousands of foreign troops, with a strong mandate, would alter the dynamic of the conflict. But, if this is to be the case, you need real force. As Elizabeth Lindenmayer, who was a senior advisor to Kofi Annan for over two decades and a peacekeeping official who oversaw missions in Iraq-Kuwait and Rwanda, explains it, "If you've got to impose the peace, particularly against Hizbullah, you've got to have a real force, and by that I don't mean Bangladeshi and Indian soldiers. Even though they are fantastic peacekeepers, they don't have the wherewithal, the logistics, the capabilities that it takes to be a deterrent force." The only recipe that could work in such a scenario, according to Lindenmayer, is that "you show force so that hopefully you don't use it. You have to have a deterrent force, and a real one, with teeth." But the inevitable question is, who can give you that kind of force. The most likely countries and coalitions, such as NATO, have already passed the buck, claiming that they are overextended in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Lindenmayer says she remembers hearing these very same excuses when she tried to assemble a force for Rwanda. No country wants to expose their soldiers to danger. Just as Israel has not forgotten and does not want to relive the experience of occupying southern Lebanon, the international community remembers what happened in 1983, when over 240 American servicemen were killed in the bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut. "Unless Hizbullah is suddenly going to accept the state of Israel and accept the status quo, this is going to be a very, very difficult mission and probably a never-ending one," says Edward Luck, a professor at Columbia University's School for International and Public affairs and an expert on UN reform and peacekeeping. "And as we saw in '83, there are ways to make it very uncomfortable. That is problematic and why you won't have a long line of member states volunteering. It's hard enough to get them for peacekeeping missions, but when it's a very difficult peace enforcement mission it's a tougher call. And obviously everyone is already stretched thin." Most of these experts think that countries are waiting to see the violence decrease before they commit to sending troops. But therein lies the Catch-22. No one wants to put their soldiers in harm's way unless the situation is less intense, but the intensity will only die down if foreign troops are introduced to the region. In the meantime, Israel is forced into a position it has said it doesn't want to be in - occupying southern Lebanon until a multinational force can take over the job. As Defense Minister Amir Peretz announced last week upon declaring that Israel would set up a security zone, "If there is not a multinational force that will get in to control the fences, a multinational force with an enforcement capability, we will continue to control [Hizbullah] with our fire toward any one who will get close to the defined security zone." The intention is there, but no one is willing to make the first step. As Edward Luck put it, "Everyone in theory wants to see this thing done, but in practice, who really wants to send their soldiers. How are they really going to explain that when the coffins start coming home?"