Moral grandstanding in the Middle East

The EU and UN want to make political mileage out of the Israel-Lebanon crisis, while avoiding taking political responsibility for it.

David Chandler

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The troop commitments for Lebanon made at the European Union’s crisis summit with UN secretary-general Kofi Annan on 25 August have been widely hailed as a diplomatic success for both the UN and the EU. In agreeing to send 7,000 troops to Lebanon, and to lead the UN peace mission there, the EU has made the biggest troop commitment in its history. For EU leaders, and many commentators, the ‘hour of Europe’ appears finally to have arrived, as Europe demonstrates that it can make a major military deployment independently from the United States (1).

In truth, for all the claims of a great show of strength over Lebanon, there is no disguising the underlying incapacities of these institutions. Indeed, over the past few weeks events on the ground in Lebanon have increasingly been overshadowed by the political buck-passing of all the major actors in the region, including the UN and the EU. The Lebanon crisis has starkly revealed the problems of internationalising conflict zones today.

It appeared that the French had scored a diplomatic coup on 11 August when the UN Security Council unanimously agreed the ceasefire proposals, under UN Resolution 1701. France co-authored the resolution with the US, and initially promised to take the lead in the peacekeeping operation. The French press suggested that France would offer several thousand troops to lead a 15,000-troop UN force, substantially beefing-up the 2,000-strong long-standing troop placement of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) (2).

But then the French got cold feet. They offered only 200 additional troops, and were more than happy when the Italians offered to lead the UN’s peacekeeping force with 3,000 troops. Initially the French claimed that their ‘special relationship’ with Lebanon (a former French colony) meant they also had a special responsibility for bringing peace to the region today. Then they decided that the fact they were once the colonial rulers of Lebanon meant they should steer clear. A French diplomat said it would be better to have ‘a force that is balanced with the presence of other Europeans and Muslim countries and which is considered a real force from the international community’ rather than a force heavy with French soldiers that might lead ‘some to say “you’re sending troops to defend your friends”’ (3).

Then the situation turned to farce when the Italians followed the French in dropping the leadership baton, no sooner than they had picked it up. The Italian defence minister, Arturo Parisi, said Italy didn’t want to take any action without knowing ‘how many other countries will put boots on the ground’ (4). Instead of leading the Lebanon intervention, Italian foreign minister Massimo D’Alema organised a flurry of increasingly desperate crisis talks with EU ambassadors and security officials, culminating in the EU summit with UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. On the eve of the summit, French president Jacques Chirac suggested that France would, after all, contribute around 2,000 troops. Other European states followed, with Spain, Belgium, Finland and Poland also making troop commitments. France will maintain its scheduled command of UNIFIL forces until February, and an Italian general will head up a special command ‘cell’ at the UN headquarters in New York.

The Europeans have talked tough over Lebanon while at the same time prevaricating when it comes to taking political responsibility and making practical commitments. Many European states took the British position of vague moral support for action while counting themselves out on the basis of having no troops available due to existing commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Those who have committed troops have contradicted themselves, and in the process revealed the ambiguities at the heart of the UN ceasefire resolution. The French and Italians say that, on the one hand, they want the UN mandate to have a tougher ‘peace enforcement’ brief with ‘clear terms of engagement’, and on the other hand, they want it to have a ‘softer’ mandate when it comes to disarming Hezbollah or confronting Israeli troops.

In many ways, the crisis of European leadership over Lebanon neatly captures the problem of internationalising conflict zones. European states all supported the UN peace resolution at the level of declaration, but they’ve been extremely reluctant to enforce it in practice. This process has revealed the hollowness of international commitments at forums such as the UN, where rhetorical support for good or ‘moral’ causes is rarely backed up with any coherent political policymaking or long-term strategy. Even the ‘successful’ EU summit with Annan which produced promises of troop commitments from EU states did nothing to provide greater clarity with regard to the size of the force or its mandate.

Leading European states have all felt the need to declare, along with Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, that they have a strong ‘moral and strategic interest’ in peace in the region. But there has been little consideration of how to translate this concern into practical steps (5). In fact, the whole process of European involvement has been an ad hoc one, driven more by concerns of self-image rather than by practical policymaking. As one EU spokesperson stated, the coordination of EU contributions was ‘not about putting together a European force’ as such. ‘Rather the idea is to show European solidarity, to show that Lebanon concerns everybody.’ (6) While it is easy to make declarations of care and concern, the problem is that no government or international institution feels confident enough to take the burden of political responsibility for the external interference which they are all more than happy to countenance (7). This is the reason for the UN and EU’s ambiguous mandates and rolling crisis summits.

Today, internationalising conflict zones inevitably leads to a blurring of responsibilities, and tends to undermine any clear political framework for resolving conflicts.

In the Cold War period, the internationalising of conflicts drew them into the clear framework of US-Soviet rivalry, creating a framework of influence and intervention shaped by the geo-strategic interests and strengths of the major powers. Today, such internationalisation does not bring with it any clear framework of external intervention. Instead, internationalisation tends to exacerbate difficulties in finding sustainable political solutions.

This process of internationalisation, leading to ad hoc, arbitrary and non-strategic policymaking with destabilising consequences, could be clearly seen in the experience of Western ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, as well as in the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ that resulted in various interventions in the Middle East. Intervening states have few clear interests at stake and no guiding framework legitimising and giving a clear purpose to their intervention. While being drawn into intervening, Western states and international institutions are quick to pass the buck for the consequences to others.

The willingness of European states to make rhetorical capital out of the Israel-Lebanon conflict has put them in an unwelcome situation. The desire to use the international sphere for moral grandstanding has been starkly highlighted because, under US pressure, European states have been publicly exposed for their reluctance to back up their rhetoric with troops (8). Pushed into a corner, European states are now coming up with troop proposals, but not because they have a commitment to the region or a clear political or military strategy. From the point of view of strategic and political interests, getting involved in peacekeeping in the region makes little sense (9). The last thing that any European governments want is to get involved in a military conflict with either Hezbollah forces or Israeli troops.

The evasion of international accountability can already be seen in the EU and the UN’s desire collectively to pass the buck for the intervention: stressing that their force commitments may not have to be as high as originally expected; arguing that their job will not be to enforce the UN resolution, or to disarm Hezbollah, but rather to act merely as facilitators for the Lebanese armed forces; and insisting, against Israeli opposition, that states such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia be allowed to play an important role as major troop contributors (10).

The further internationalisation of the Lebanon crisis is not a step towards peace in the region. The greater involvement of the EU and the UN will inevitably be destabilising as it blurs the lines of accountability, weakening the authority of local actors at the same time as intervening powers seek to deny responsibility for their own actions.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at University of Westminster. His latest book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building.

(1) See, for example, Jonathan Freedland, ‘If Europe doesn’t want Middle East War to Begin Again, it has to Step Up’, Guardian, 23 August 2006; ‘EU Struggles to Hammer Out Troop Contributions for Lebanon Force’, Agence France-Presse, 24 August 2006.

(2) See the text of the Security Council resolution.

(3) ‘France Losing Face over Weak Commitment to Lebanon UN Force’, Tocqueville Connection, 22 August 2006.

(4) Richard Owen, ‘Italy Pushes for More support over Lebanon Peace Force’, The Times, 23 August 2006.

(5) Richard Owen, ‘Italy Pushes for More support over Lebanon Peace Force’, The Times, 23 August 2006.

(6) ‘EU Struggles to Hammer Out Troop Contributions for Lebanon Force’, Agence France-Presse, 24 August 2006.

(7) This process was highlighted earlier in August, in the UK’s draft Security Council resolution calling for the UN’s largest peacekeeping deployment yet, in the Sudan, despite stating that Britain was unlikely to send troops contributing to it. See, Ewen MacAskill and Oliver Burkeman, ‘UN: Peacekeeping Capacity Nears Breaking Point’, Guardian, 18 August 2006.

(8) ‘EU Struggles to Hammer Out Troop Contributions for Lebanon Force’, Agence France-Presse, 24 August 2006

(9) Michael Rose, ‘Without a Clear Mandate, the UN Troops in Lebanon are Heading for Disaster’, Independent on Sunday, 27 August 2006.

(10) Craig S. Smith, ‘Europe Pledges a Larger Force Inside Lebanon‘, New York Times, 26 August 2006. On the UN’s increasing reliance on Third World peacekeepers see Philip Cunliffe, ‘Poor Man’s Ethics? Peacekeeping and the Contradictions of Ethical Ideology’, in David Chandler and Volker Heins (eds) Rethinking Ethical Foreign Policy: Pitfalls, Possibilities and Paradoxes (London, Routledge, forthcoming), pp.70-89.

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