Monday, August 28, 2006

Annan and Hezbollah

Some right-wing enthusiasts have accused the United Nations of being pro-Hezbollah and anti-Israel. Aspects of that criticism have merit: The UN has done little to curb Hezbollah's activities in Lebanon. And who can forget the abduction of three Israeli soldiers in 2000 -- an abduction that may have been aided by bribed Indian peacekeepers, and the investigation of which was flawed?

I think they miss the point. Reining in Hezbollah was outside both the mandate and the capabilities of the lightly-armed UN observers; trying to do so would at a minimum have compromised their neutrality, upon which their presence in Lebanon depended.

As for the 2000 incident, The UN is a self-protective bureaucracy with generally weak institutional oversight. As such there will almost inevitably be corruption, and the UN will never be good at admitting mistakes. But there's no evidence that the United Nations itself assisted or condoned the attack.

That said, sometimes things are clearer than that. And Kofi Annan provided one such moment today.

Sitting beside Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, Annan demanded Hezbollah return two captured Israeli soldiers, whose July 12 abduction touched off the 34-day war, and said Israel must lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon. ...

"It's a fixed menu. ... It's not an a la carte menu where you choose and pick," he said at the end of the first day of his 11-day Mideast swing that will include stops in Iran and Syria, the main backers of Hezbollah.

The demand that Hezbollah release the soldiers had been missing from much of the discussion leading up to and after the ceasefire. It's good that he said it so clearly, in Lebanon, with the Lebanese prime minister sitting next to him.

His words do, however, illustrate the complexity of the situation. He also called for Israel to end its naval blockade -- a blockade that Israel, reasonably, refuses to call off until the UN force is in place. And he once again reiterate that the UN force will not disarm Hezbollah, placing that responsibility squarely on Lebanon -- which has already indicated it will not do so.

Annan is correct not to want peacekeepers drawn into the conflict by attempting to disarm one side when Lebanon is unwilling to do so. Lebanon, besides having conflicting feelings regarding Hezbollah, faces the practical problem that any attempt at forced disarmament would likely fail, and fail bloodily.

The New York Times had a piece this weekend describing the dilemma. Disarmament is not a tactic; it's the end result of a political and diplomatic process. Unless a force has been thoroughly broken and defeated, it can only be disarmed with its consent -- and such consent only comes when that force comes to believe that it can gain more by laying down its arms. There's an element of hardball to the process -- the negative threat of military action. But barring the application of overwhelming force -- which neither the UN nor Lebanon is able or willing to do -- Hezbollah will not be disarmed at gunpoint.

So we have a ceasefire. We have Lebanon taking responsibility for the south. We have Hezbollah under pressure to keep its weapons out of sight and to release the captured Israelis. We have the parties trying to adjust the political reality so that Hezbollah is forced into a corner where disarmament becomes an appealing option.

On the Israeli side, there's the carrot/stick of a permanent peace and agreed-upon border with Lebanon, which might then stop providing a haven to anti-Israeli elements.

It's not clear what will come out of this situation, a situation so deeply dissatisfying to all involved. But there is reason to hope. And for now, with the guns silent, it's enough.

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