Peacekeeping That Works

PUBLIC opinion has soured on United Nations peacekeeping operations. The litany of failed or unpopular missions is familiar: Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti. Along with the lack of public support for peacekeeping there is a lukewarm attitude in Congress for paying our UN peacekeeping bills - now $1 billion in arrears.

Yet nearly 1,000 United States troops are participating in an enormously successful peacekeeping operation: the Sinai Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), an 11-nation force put into place in 1982 to keep peace between Egypt and Israel. Some are combat troops serving without incident under foreign command, occupying lonely outposts in the sands of the southern Sinai peninsula. Others run a supply line for participating nations - besides the US, as diverse as Colombia, Fiji, and Italy - at a base camp not far from the Valley of Moses. Not one shot has been fired in anger. US forces cooperate well with troops from other countries. And the MFO is cost-effective: Since 1983 it has cut forces by 25 percent and costs by more than 40 percent.

The MFO's success has met with little publicity. Yet it holds valuable lessons, particularly in the Middle East.

First, the MFO experience shows there is no substitute for a peace agreement. This peacekeeping operation works because Egypt and Israel want it to work.

Second, because the MFO operates outside the UN system, it has been innovative in important ways that UN peacekeeping should emulate. Egypt and Israel, for example, agreed at the outset that they would communicate not only with the peacekeepers but with each other. The almost-daily contact between political and military leaders in Israel and Egypt on MFO business has been an important confidence-building measure. Another innovation is cost-sharing. The MFO agreement required both Egypt and Israel to bear one-third of the costs of the peacekeeping operation. This has been an important incentive for keeping costs down. No country that benefits from peacekeeping, no matter how poor, should be exempt from cost-sharing.

Third, the MFO can hire its own staff, and has hired top-notch people, without concerns about UN-style nationality quotas. The quality of its personnel, in turn, has inspired the confidence of Israel and Egypt.

Fourth, MFO operations are conducted in full view of all parties. The budget is open to full scrutiny. No recommendation from the MFO experience merits greater UN attention than a commitment to openness and public review of peacekeeping budgets.

Finally, the MFO works because of US leadership. The US made a commitment to make it work because peace between Egypt and Israel was, and is, in our national-security interests. US leadership meant providing half of the $250 million in start-up costs, one-third of the MFO's annual budget, and up to 50 percent of its troops. It also paved the way for MFO to operate outside the UN framework.

One lesson, however, can be learned from what the MFO did wrong: The force should have a built-in mechanism for its demise. The MFO's 12-year success should pave the way for further reduction of its forces and eventual phase-out.

Peacekeeping in the post-cold-war era has been difficult. The MFO will not be a model for all peacekeeping operations; but we can learn from it. If and when Israel and Syria sign a peace agreement, an MFO II on the Golan Heights would be a fitting successor for the Middle East's most successful peacekeeping operation.

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