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July 27, 2006

Send in the Cavalry (er, International Force)
Posted by David Shorr

There are so many UN angles to choose from -- the bombing of its Lebanon mission, is Kofi playing it right, UN v. NATO legitimacy, content of a Security Council resolution... But I want to focus on the question raised by Elaine Sciolino and Steven Erlanger in their lede of their page one story in Tuesday's New York Times:

Support is building quickly for an international military force to be placed in southern Lebanon, but there remains a small problem: where will the troops come from?

Multilateralists (I am one) have an achilles heel that we must cure. (Yes, I know Achilles' tragic flaw could not be cured, but they didn't have 21st century medicine.) When we vaguely praise "international institutions" such as the UN, we leave them exposed to unfair and unrealistic criteria for effectiveness. The Sciolino/Erlanger piece on the difficulty of obtaining forces reminds us that international organizations rely totally on member states to be able to do anything.

The United Nations and other intergovernmental bodies provide essential public goods for the international order. Their treaties and resolutions give normative structure and help define the boundaries of acceptable behavior in the global community. Their councils and committees give diplomatic structure for international cooperation and decision making. Such organizations are a crucial barricade against anarchy, but the bulwark is only as strong as the collective political will invested by governments.

Let's start a betting pool; how long till commentators start talking about the current Middle East crisis as another "failure of the UN?" I have written elsewhere that the chief political function of the UN is often to serve as a scapegoat. It's as if we're demanding: "Hey UN, why haven't you brought about world peace and "saved succeeding generations from the scourge of war" like you promised?

Ironically, the UN was a significant contributor to Lebanon's Cedar Revolution last year. After the Hariri assassination, the Security Council displayed remarkable unity in putting pressure on Syria. And that's the point, international organizations can be quite effective when governments come together and agree on a course of action.

As a colleague of mine might put it, when it comes to impact, nation states are the independent variables, and international organizations are the dependent variables. This is they key to effective international action, and it's where the debate about multilateralism needs to go.


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What exactly would an international force do? It seems unlikely that Hezbollah would agree to let it in right now, which means the force would have to do Israel's work and fight Hezbollah.

Any Muslim country would be crazy to agree to such a thing, and a European army would be vulnerable to charges of "crusading" -- especially if it has to lay siege to a town or city to enforce the ceasefire. The nation that agrees to do it would have to be willing to take significant casualties for an uncertain gain.

And after that attack on the UN outpost, an international force can't even be certain that the Israelis wouldn't take a shot at them.

If the multilateralists don't think about these issues more clearly, it's they who are setting up the UN to be a scapegoat, much like in Somalia.

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