An Orwellian occupation

Taking Doublespeak to a new level, the United Nations will send a 15,000-strong force to occupy Lebanon in the name of strengthening it.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

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With a shaky ceasefire in place in Lebanon since yesterday, both Israel and Hezbollah have claimed victory in the conflict. In the West, the legions of armchair strategists are already pontificating on which side emerged victorious. Did the Israeli failure to rout Hezbollah mean a victory for the militia? Or does the impending deployment of an international peacekeeping force to southern Lebanon mean the end of Hezbollah? Are Iran and Syria the real victors? Or has the US managed to further its schemes for regional domination?

This pin-in-the-map approach to the conflict – and ‘strategic’ assessments based on the number of casualties, or the deployment of the Israeli army, or comparing the quantity of ordnance used by both sides – all miss the key political outcome of the war: the newly expanded reach of the international community in the Middle East. The strategic balance between Israel and Hezbollah is far less important than this overall political effect of the conflict.

The ceasefire is based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. The terms of the resolution call for the incumbent UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, Unifil, to expand from 2,000 to 15,000 troops. In tandem with an Israeli withdrawal, this strengthened force will then occupy south Lebanon alongside an equivalent number of Lebanese troops. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan is expected to cobble together this international force within the next few weeks, with France, Italy, Turkey and Malaysia as key troop-contributing countries.

Even if the ceasefire breaks down and the terms of the resolution are redrafted, everyone knows that the international community and the UN will still be involved in any final settlement. Indeed, this was the firm expectation from the very beginning of the war. The fact that the extensive involvement of the international community is taken for granted, regardless of the outcome on the battlefield, indicates that the strategic gains that either side could hope for were constrained by this basic limit. It is a peculiar war that is fought out despite everyone knowing full well the final outcome: an expanded international presence in the region.

So what does this expectation about the international community tell us about the aftermath of the conflict, and the political outlook for the Levant?

Intervention forces and UN peacekeepers have been despatched on numerous occasions during the turbulent history of Lebanon: 1958, 1976, 1978 and 1982. The 15,000-strong proposed revamp of Unifil will be the largest intervention in Lebanon’s post-independence history. Historically, UN peacekeeping operations have largely been small-scale, lightly-armed international forces used to monitor buffer zones between hostile states. The military weakness of these deployments was expressly intended to convince belligerents that the peacekeepers could not alter the balance in favour of any combatant.

The new peacekeeping force proposed for Lebanon is different: it will be a large, heavily-armed military operation whose nominal purpose will be to strengthen the hold of the Lebanese state over its own territory. In other words: nation-building. But it is not only Lebanon that will now be propped up by the international community; Israel will be, too. Israel’s acceptance of Resolution 1701 shows that it accepts that responsibility for the security of its northern border will be handed to this de facto international police force.

Given France’s central role in drafting Resolution 1701, many expect the French will take the lead in the expanded UN operation. This will mean the military and political return of the ex-imperial overlord to its former colony, with the international community seemingly oblivious to how French colonial rule fomented many of the conflicts that have afflicted Lebanon since independence. Still, it would be wrong to see the proposed peacekeeping army as Great Power intrigue pure and simple, or as little more than a veneer for French neo-colonialism.

The new readiness to deploy military force in the guise of peacekeeping – and the new readiness by those on the receiving end to accept such deployments – represents a new model in international affairs. Those powers with the least stake in a conflict are now seen as the most legitimate guarantors of lasting peace. Nation states abdicate their political responsibilities to the higher moral authority of the international community in the name of justice and peace. But welcoming the international community in to preside over the fate of the region is no guarantee of peace. On the contrary, this makes peace dependent on the whim of outside powers more interested in trying to salvage their own moral credentials than in establishing a just peace. In this sense, the enhanced power of the international community is a defeat for Israelis and Lebanese alike.

Both countries handed over control of their affairs to remote and unaccountable powers. This model of an interest-free politics is untenable; those with no stake in the conflict have less incentive to resolve it, and are far less accountable to the people who are directly involved. Now, instead of Israel violating Lebanese sovereignty, the UN solution will allow other powers to infringe Lebanese sovereignty in a more Orwellian fashion, by occupying the country in the name of strengthening it.

Instead of demanding that the West should restrain Israel, or that it should protect Lebanon, we should challenge the paternalistic belief that people will inevitably slide into barbarism if they are not sheltered by the international community. Accepting the patronising belief that the peoples of the Middle East are incapable of managing their own affairs without outside interference is tantamount to accepting that conflict in the region is inevitable – and that war is akin to a natural disaster beyond human control. The only ultimate guarantee of peace in the Middle East is to allow the people who live there to resolve their own crises.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations, which will be published in December 2006. He is chairing the debate Empire of Regulation or Lawless World? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London in October 2006.

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Topics Politics


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