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Europe to Send 7,000 Peacekeepers to Lebanon

August 25, 2006 at 8:50 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Today’s meeting in Brussels capped weeks of tense negotiations at the U.N. and world capitals. The issues: the composition and precise role of a U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

Today, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised Europe’s decision to officially commit a combined 7,000 troops.

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. Secretary-General: Europe has lived up to its responsibility, provided the backbone to the force, and we can look forward confidently we’re building a credible force that will help the international community achieve its goals in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: Annan did stress that the U.N. force would not be expected to disarm Hezbollah.

The promise of a robust international force was key to winning the U.N. cease-fire resolution that ended 34 days of fighting. The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah killed 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis.

The resolution envisioned 15,000 international troops supplementing 15,000 Lebanese soldiers to keep the peace and serve as a buffer on the Lebanese-Israeli border. But setting up the force and agreeing on its rules of engagement was trickier than originally anticipated.

A major stumbling block was the reluctance of France to send a large contingent of soldiers. Last week, French President Jacques Chirac offered just 400. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi stepped in to pledge 3,000 troops and suggested Italy command the force. Yesterday, Chirac upped the French contribution to 2,000; he said France should command the force.

Annan announced today that the French would lead it until next February, when Italy would take over. Chirac did urge Annan to reconsider the total number of troops.

JACQUES CHIRAC, President of France (through translator): I can be honest, I can’t imagine that in a territory which is half of the size of a French province we could have 15,000 Lebanese troops deployed and 15,000 UNIFIL soldiers deployed. There is a big chance they would be bumping into each other.

European commitment

Augustus Richard Norton
Boston University
The French and the Americans learned to their pain in Lebanon in 1983 that sending in a force that becomes a part of the conflict can turn into a disaster.

MARGARET WARNER: Spain has already pledged 1,200, and Poland, Finland, and Belgium will send smaller contingents. Another 8,000 are supposed to come from outside Europe. The predominantly Muslim nations of Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh have volunteered.

Officially, the beefed-up force will be a successor to a 2,000-man U.N. observer mission known as UNIFIL, which has been in Lebanon since 1978.

And for more on the Europeans' decision and role in the new U.N. force, we turn to Philip Gordon, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He was director for European affairs on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration.

And Augustus Richard Norton, professor of international relations at Boston University, a retired U.S. Army colonel, he served as an observer with the UNIFIL force in 1980 to '81 in Lebanon. He's written widely about Lebanon and the Arab world.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

Philip Gordon, how big a commitment is this on the part of the Europeans?

PHILIP GORDON, Brookings Institution: It's a pretty important commitment, because you remember that the cease-fire in southern Lebanon was contingent on an international force going in, as was the deployment of the Lebanese army to the south.

And for the past week, we've all been sitting around waiting to see if this key piece of the whole picture was going to happen. There was some doubts for a while, but now the fact that they were able to pledge 7,000 troops, which makes it easier for other countries, Muslim countries, to pledge the rest, it looks very positive.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Norton, what is your take on why this proved so hard to get done? I mean, we should say it's only been two weeks since the U.N. resolution was passed, but still there did seem to be some real hesitation.

AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON, Boston University: Well, these forces certainly don't come into being instantly. The commanders and, for that matter, defense ministers and prime ministers are very concerned to make sure they know what it is their troops are going to be doing, in other words, what the rules of engagement are.

Under what circumstances can force be used? Under what circumstances should restraint, but not force, be used? The French and the Americans learned to their pain in Lebanon in 1983 that sending in a force that becomes a part of the conflict can turn into a disaster. And I'm sure that the French and other European contributors certainly want to avoid that kind of result.

Changed plan

Philip Gordon
The Brookings Institution
So we were all sitting around, figuring and assuming that France would lead this force. Nobody really checked with the French military and the French defense ministry which was going to have to send these troops.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Philip Gordon, explain Jacques Chirac and what happened with France, though. Last week, he was almost ridiculed for proposing just to double their current UNIFIL contribution from 200 to 400, after saying that they wanted to leave the force, they were behind the U.N. resolution. Yesterday, he said 2,000. What happened?

PHILIP GORDON: There was a big disconnect between what people were expecting from France and thought they understood from France and what the reality was. Everyone assumed that France would be delighted to lead this force and send lots of troops.

They have a historic role in Lebanon. People assume that Jacques Chirac wants to show France's world role, the importance of the European Union. He has been tough on Iran and Syria, which assassinated his friend, the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, all sorts of reasons that people were just assuming. France's role at the U.N., France was key in negotiating the cease-fire and the U.N. resolution.

So we were all sitting around, figuring and assuming that France would lead this force. Nobody really checked with the French military and the French defense ministry which was going to have to send these troops.

And when they did, it also had to do with the particular mandate. If you remember, the first U.N. Security Council resolution was under Chapter Seven of the U.N. charter which means force could be used...

MARGARET WARNER: The original draft?

PHILIP GORDON: ... and it was pretty tough, the original draft that the United States and France proposed and agreed to. And then, when the Lebanese government resisted that and it was watered down a little bit, the French military said, "Well, hang on a minute, let us look at the fine print before you send us back into this situation where we might not have the robust rules of engagement and mandate to protect ourselves. And we've been there before."

And they remember Bosnia and the 80 some peacekeepers who were killed, and they remember Lebanon, where 50-some French soldiers were also killed. So there was a lot of resistance, and we just assumed it would be easier than it was.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Norton, what's your understanding of what they -- what will be the rules of engagement, how those concerns were met?

AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: Well, as Philip Gordon said, there was a lot of perhaps exaggerated expectations about what this force would look like. From a lot of the commentary, it sounds like we were going to have UNIFIL on steroids. We have something rather short of that.

We have basically a stabilizing force that will have the authority to use deadly force so that they can accomplish this mission, but has clear instructions to use only proportional force, to minimize collateral damage, and to use the minimum level of force necessary to meet a threat.

Furthermore, this force is not charged with disarming Hezbollah. And, in fact, there's a clause in the rules of engagement, which I've had an opportunity to read, which provide that, if a combatant is seen at a distance which is greater than the range of his weapon, then basically he is not considered a threat.

So basically, this is a stabilizing force with a clearly defined area of operations that would be an implement for diplomacy. That force will buy time. Now it will be the job of the diplomats to use that time wisely.

Power given to peacekeeping force

Augustus Richard Norton
Boston University
[T]his force is a stabilizing force that basically operates checkpoints, that conducts patrols on roads, that basically maintains the free movement of humanitarian workers, permits civilians to return to their villages, and so on.

MARGARET WARNER: Philip Gordon, though, it sounds as if the force -- one way it will be different from some earlier ones is that they will have the power to or the authority not only to shoot to protect themselves, but if civilians seem to be coming under imminent threat.

PHILIP GORDON: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: That's different, isn't it? I mean, we've had cases where U.N. peacekeepers stood by as civilians got massacred.

PHILIP GORDON: That's right. And now they have rules of engagement that will allow them do it, but not necessarily mandate that they do it, and that's why there's still a little ambiguity here. And it's going to be up to how the commanders of that force choose to implement it.

They're going to be the ones on the grounds, and they're going to be the ones taking the decisions, as Professor Norton just said. You know, is someone out of the range? Do I have the responsibility? Do I have the duty to protect that person? And what if I do? And so there's a lot of wiggle room to see how robustly they're going to want to do this.

Also on the disarmament role, everyone agrees that they're not going to actively go after Hezbollah and look for their weapons and take them away. But if they come across Hezbollah weapons in the course of their patrols, they're supposed to deal with it.

Will they choose to? Will they have that confrontation? What if it leads to a clash? As always, you can write these rules of engagement, but ultimately a human being on the ground is going to have to decide what risks they want to take.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Norton, as we reported, President Chirac also questioned why 15,000 troops were needed. Kofi Annan didn't seem to take up that suggestion today, but you've had experience. What is your feeling? Are 15,000 international troops needed in that small an area in addition to the 15,000 Lebanese army troops?

AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: Well, this force is a stabilizing force that basically operates checkpoints, that conducts patrols on roads, that basically maintains the free movement of humanitarian workers, permits civilians to return to their villages, and so on. This can probably be done with 7,000 or 8,000 troops.

When I was with UNIFIL when it was much more robust, it had about 6,000 troops. So this would be a significant increment over the historic high.

However, there are clauses in the resolution which was passed a few weeks ago, 1701, that provides that this force will assist the Lebanese government in curtailing or stemming the flow of weapons into Lebanon, if that government makes the request.

So, if the Lebanese government were to make that sort of request, then this would require a lot of mobile forces, probably a lot more forces stationed in border areas along the coast, and so on, but it remains to be seen what the Lebanese government is going to do, with respect to the introduction of weapons into Lebanon.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Philip Gordon, what will be the definition of success for this mission? Annan said today -- I mean, he's already foreseeing that it's going to be there at least for a while, because the French are going to run it until February, and then the Italians are going to lead it.

PHILIP GORDON: Yes. I mean, just one thing on the size of the force. I listened to President Chirac. I have to say, I wish my biggest concern about the force was that they were bumping into each other on the ground and that there were too many soldiers there.

The success of this force would be if it manages to assist the Lebanese army in stopping the flow of weapons to Hezbollah. I mean, a true success would be disarming Hezbollah, but that's not going to happen. Everyone realizes that. But short of that, if it could stop the flow of the re-supply of arms to Hezbollah and reassure the two sides that they don't need to actively start a war again, that would be success.

And I think we'll see that in the short term. It doesn't look like anybody wants to restart the hot war. But in the longer run, at a minimum, success would be stopping weapons from coming in, and for that you couldn't have too many forces.

European approach to Mideast

Philip Gordon
The Brookings Institution
[A]bsolutely it's about Europe stepping up to the plate, but I don't think that's a bad thing.

MARGARET WARNER: I'd like to ask you both finally to sum up on this other point. And I'll start with you, Professor Norton.

Today, the Italian foreign minister was in Israel, and he made some comments about how America's aggressive approach in the Middle East was really misguided, and seemed to be suggesting that the Europeans would offer a different way. And he said this. He said, "Success would be the active presence of international and European diplomacy in the region, a presence that has been missing for many years."

I'm wondering if you think part of the Europeans' willingness to step up to this does have to do with a certain desire to either show up the United States or offer an alternative to the United States in that part of the world.

AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: Well, unfortunately, the U.S. has showed a proclivity in some places, like Iraq, to it seems make more enemies than it actually deals with initially. So I share the concern that was expressed by the Italian prime minister.

I think the Italians and other Europeans have a legitimate interest here in ensuring that Lebanon and the broader Middle East does not become more unstable and therefore a source of even more refugees and even more extremism and violence.

And let's remember that each of these European countries, Italy, France, for example, have significant Muslim populations, so they're also concerned about these Muslim populations and how they see the role of their government in the Middle East. So I think the position of Mr. Prodi is very, very lucid and, for the most part, very justified.

MARGARET WARNER: Quick final word for you?

PHILIP GORDON: Very briefly, absolutely it's about Europe stepping up to the plate, but I don't think that's a bad thing.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Philip Gordon, Professor Norton, thank you both.

AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: My pleasure.