UN to the rescue in Lebanon?

United Nations peacekeepers may have a checkered record, but the world keeps turning to them for ever bigger missions. They rank second to the US in troop deployments and are now supposed to come to the rescue in Lebanon. Can they?

The performance of "blue helmets," as UN forces are sometimes called, is mixed.

They assist with voting and referendums in war-torn nations (Democratic Republic of Congo); stabilize trouble spots (East Timor and Sierra Leone); turn warring parties into political ones (Mozambique, El Salvador), and serve as an animosity buffer (Cyprus). And they do it cheaply. Last year, 18 UN peacekeeping missions cost $5 billion – one-twentieth of what Iraq cost the US in 2005.

But they've also had some colossal failures, most notably in Rwanda, where they were undermanned, underequipped, and underauthorized to counter genocide. And UN peacekeepers have been camped out in Lebanon since 1978 – a witness to violence but not a deterrent.

The world hopes that will change by upping the number of blue helmets in Lebanon to a maximum of 15,000 from 2,000 and strengthening their authority and mandate. According to the UN resolution that ushered in this week's fragile cease-fire, the peacekeepers will support 15,000 Lebanese Army troops in securing a southern buffer zone free of an armed Hizbullah, which started the five-week war with Israel.

As envisioned, the peacekeeping force has some distinct advantages over other UN missions.

For the first time since the early 1990s, key European nations – notably France and Italy – could play a major role in a UN mission. That's critical, because only well-equipped countries such as these can deploy rapidly without outside assistance. With Lebanese troops already moving south and Israelis withdrawing, speed is of the essence.

The size of the force, if achieved, would be impressive. Response to a UN call for Darfur peacekeepers has been as empty as the Sudanese desert. But dozens of countries have expressed at least initial interest in Lebanon, including Muslim nations such as Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, whose presence would add credibility to the mix.

These peacekeepers will also have the authority to use force if needed. "We're very satisfied with the composition ... and powers" of the envisioned force, Meir Shlomo, Israeli consul general for New England, told the Monitor earlier this week.

But if the peacekeeping architecture looks fairly solid, what about the land it's built on? France has complained that the UN resolution's peacekeeping mandate is "fuzzy." Most important, the cease-fire's geopolitical foundation – the very basis for peace – is exceptionally weak.

The UN can keep Turks and Greeks at bay in Cyprus because that's a contained dispute between two groups who have agreed not to shoot at each other. The conflict in Lebanon stems from many regional players whose interests have not changed with this war. And a key question hangs in the air: Will Hizbullah ever be disarmed?

These underlying issues must be resolved for the peacekeepers to be effective.

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