An Israeli artillery shell crashed into a U.N. observation post in the Lebanese town of Khiyam on Tuesday last week, killing four international monitors and bringing an ignominious end to the organization’s latest, failed attempt at Arab-Israeli peacekeeping. That mission, known as the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), achieved painfully little in its 28 years of operation. Yet before the smoke had even cleared at Khiyam, world leaders — including Lebanon’s Fuad Siniora, most European Union heads of government, and even some Israelis — began calling for a new U.N. force to intervene. George W. Bush joined this chorus last Friday.
The politicians should be careful what they wish for. Unifil was only the U.N.’s most recent star-crossed foray into Middle East peacemaking. Since 1948, the U.N. has stepped into the Arab-Israeli maelstrom five times. But few of these efforts have paid off. Unless it takes a radically different shape, a new intervention could well make matters worse, not just for the parties on the ground, but for the U.N. itself.
Understanding what not to do next time requires figuring out what’s gone wrong in the past. Start with Unifil. Created in 1978 during Lebanon’s long civil war and charged with helping to restore peace and security, monitor Israel’s withdrawal, and extend Beirut’s “effective authority” in the country’s south, Unifil proved unable to do any of these things. It took 12 more years to stop the civil war, and after Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, the blue helmets stood by impotently as Hezbollah dug in, launched cross-border raids (once even disguised as U.N. troops), and stockpiled the missiles that now rain down nightly on Haifa.
Part of the problem was size: Unifil numbered 6,000 troops when it was created but had dwindled to 2,000 more recently, and thus never had nearly enough manpower to cover its area of operations. Nor did it have the guns, intelligence or air support to give it any chance of disarming Hezbollah. Moreover, its anemic mandate relied on all parties to comply with the U.N.’s dictates. When they refused, the peacekeepers lacked the authority to do much more than watch. And, sadly, to die; the mission suffered 257 fatalities over the last three decades.
As for the U.N.’s earlier missions in the region, they might have suffered fewer casualties but they were scarcely more successful. The most infamous was the U.N. Expeditionary Force, created in 1956 to act as a buffer between Israel and Egypt after the Suez War. The idea was to separate hostile troops and prevent a resumption of combat. But when Nasser decided to invade Israel in 1967, UNEF, which served at the sufferance of Cairo, rushed to oblige by scrambling out of the way. U.N. Secretary General U Thant didn’t even bother to inform the Security Council before yanking out the mission.
To be fair, even more unilateral attempts at peacemaking in the area haven’t done much better. In 1982, the U.S. led a four-nation force (with France, Italy and the U.K.) into Lebanon to try to stop the fighting, but these troops were also hastily pulled out the next year, after Hezbollah suicide bombers killed 241 U.S. Marines and 56 French paratroopers. This tragic record points to several key lessons that the U.N., especially the permanent members of the Security Council — who would have to authorize any new mission — must heed now before stepping once more into the breach.
First and foremost, if it is to have any chance of disarming Hezbollah, persuading Israel to withdraw and keeping southern Lebanon quiet, a new U.N. mission will have to be big. This means several divisions worth of battle-tested troops (some experts put the number at 25,000). The soldiers would need heavy equipment, intelligence capabilities, air support and artillery: things most previous missions in the region were never given, making them too easy to brush aside. They’d also need robust rules of engagement and authorization under the U.N. Charter’s Chapter VII, which would let them go after Hezbollah if necessary and would prevent their premature withdrawal. To stay the course, they’d also need a stomach for casualties, since no foreign force has ever escaped Lebanon unbloodied. And they should be preceded by a cease-fire signed by all interested parties and approved by the Arab League, which would legitimize the action and allow diplomatic pressure to be applied on Damascus and Tehran.
Realistically, only NATO soldiers would have the capacity for such a job. Apart from being well-equipped, NATO troops are trained to fight together. This gives them a huge advantage over polyglot U.N. forces, who are often badly coordinated and can barely communicate among themselves (the peacekeepers killed last week in southern Lebanon included a Canadian, a Chinese, an Austrian and a Finn). A good model to follow would be the 2000 mission in Sierra Leone, where an international force, stiffened and supported by a large contingent of British troops with a wide mandate, managed to halt a civil war in a matter of months.
All of this may sound like an extremely tall order. But better to confront that fact now than pretend things are otherwise. Unless those Western states now blithely calling for the U.N. to act are also willing to offer to contribute troops (and so far, very few of them have) any mission is virtually doomed to fail. If recent history teaches anything, it is that half-hearted efforts — which give a false sense that something is being done but only end up costing peacekeepers’ lives — can be worse than none at all.