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A Peacekeeping Challenge for Europe

Will the Middle East conflict help restore Europe’s own belief in its values — and in its own military power?

April 13, 2002

Will the Middle East conflict help restore Europe's own belief in its values — and in its own military power?

It is becoming increasingly clear that peacekeepers will be required in the Middle East. The entire world recognizes that somebody needs to separate the two sides and help to guarantee security for Israelis and dignity for the Palestinians. The question is who?

Peacekeeping is a difficult mission under any circumstances, but especially so in the Middle East. It is a story of a few critical successes — and some highly uncomfortable failures.

For years, UN peacekeepers in the Sinai kept Egypt and Israel from fighting. But their quick withdrawal in 1967 left the area primed for a full scale war.

Peacekeeping forces based in Lebanon have been notable mainly for their impotence. They were never able to stop Palestinian infiltrations into Israel. And, when the Israelis finally got fed up, these peacekeepers were powerless to stop the advance of the Israel Defense Forces into Lebanon. This, in turn, made the Israelis — regardless of political stripe — nervous about any future UN peacekeeping operations in the region.

What is the lesson? Simply this somewhat odd formulation: Peacekeepers need to be ready for war. Effective peacekeepers are going to have to fight any and all comers who violate the rules of the peace which they are securing.

So, where will the Middle East get its peacekeepers? The United States has two strikes against it. First, the U.S. military is heavily involved in Afghanistan — and the Pentagon will want to keep its strength available for other direct attacks on sources of terror.

Second, the United States is, simply, too closely identified with Israel. From the Palestinian point of view, a robust U.S. military presence will be too closely linked with Israeli occupation to represent any real change.

Enter the Europeans. Contrary to some accounts, Europe does have professional and effective military forces. Its soldiers would not need the smart bombs and global positioning systems that place the United States head and shoulders above the rest of the world militarily. Supporting European peacekeepers in the Middle East — which is accessible and close to Europe — would be much easier than inserting such forces in Afghanistan.

And, the Europeans are viewed more sympathetically by the Palestinians. They have supported the cause of the Palestinian state when the United States refused to even enter into talks with the PLO. This history provides Europe with valuable political capital that the United States lacks.

Of course, creating the conditions for peacekeeping itself will require some work. But there is one place where Europe can make an immediate impact — literally tomorrow — if Europeans wish to take up the challenge. That place is Lebanon.

Why Lebanon? Although it has been overshadowed by suicide bombers and Israeli invasions of the occupied territories, the situation in Lebanon has deteriorated rapidly — and is heading towards a disaster. The Israelis pulled out of Lebanon unilaterally in 2000 with the understanding that the Lebanese Army would patrol the country’s border with Israel and keep things quiet.

But Lebanon’s Army never showed up. Instead, the power vacuum was filled by Hezbollah. There have been several such incursions in recent weeks — including one that led to the deaths of six Israeli civilians. In other words, Lebanon is rapidly proving Israeli’s right wing to be correct — that any unilateral Israeli withdrawal will lead to more, and not less, violence.

How to head off this potential political disaster? Now is the time for a bold European foreign policy move. The Europeans should declare that they are willing to take the place of the Lebanese Army. Troops could be there in days — and the area could be rapidly secured. Anybody entering the zone with weapons would be engaged and arrested.

Of course, this is a risky task and a big gamble. With Israel’s python grip on West Bank cities, Hezbollah could be easily provoked into inflicting French, Spanish or German casualties on the Lebanese border. At the same time, however, if Europe succeeded in cooling off the Israeli-Lebanese front, it could make a strong case for similar action to be accomplished in the West Bank.

Deploying European troops to Lebanon would require the same audacity that the United States showed in Afghanistan. And European leaders would have to be willing to threaten both Arab and Israeli militaries with significant retaliation if either moved or threatened the zone. (The new rules should ban Israeli flyovers — and be enforced by the French and German air forces — just as the Europeans would check Hezbollah incursions).

But the very risk involved in such a maneuver demonstrates the potential gain as well. A successful mission would help defuse the Middle East crisis. But it could also give European foreign policymakers a reputation for risk-taking and audacity in place of their present reputation for risk aversion.

European peacekeeping is, in a very real sense, the necessary complement to the creation of the euro. It would prove once and for all the ability of the EU nations to act together in military matters — just as they have acted together in monetary matters.