France in Lebanon: the strength of hesitation

About the author
Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

The headquarters of the European Union in Brussels is less often at the centre of world politics than the union's leaders would like. August 25, 2006 was one of those occasions, when intense days of negotiation finally resulted in an announcement that European Union governments would commit around 7,000 soldiers of the new, improved, 15,000-strong United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).

What United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan described as the "backbone" of a "muscled, credible and robust" force represents the most important European Union military commitment ever outside the EU's own region. In an area where war has been a daily threat (and a frequent reality) for over half a century, it is also the most dangerous.

There is, after all, no certainty that the current, provisional peace in this frontier land will endure. Israel, backed by the United States, consented to a cessation of hostilities rather than a formal ceasefire, and the weeks (if not months) that will pass before the full contingent of "blue helmets" arrives guarantees that the area will remain a powder-keg that could explode in the face of the peacekeepers.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine" (October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression" (November 2005)

"France's enarchy"
(November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA" (January 2006)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France" (March 2006)

"Ukraine's inspiring boredom" (April 2006)

"France's crisis after crisis" (April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

"France and Europe: the democratic deficit exposed" (June 2006)

"Politics and soccer: France sings Les Bleus" (June 2006)

"Zidane's farewell, France's hangover"
(July 2006)

"France and Lebanon: diplomacy of tragedy" (August 2006)

A just delay

This initial deployment will include contributions from a range of EU member-states: 3,000 Italian solders, 2,000 French (not including the hundreds sent directly to Beirut to help the Lebanese authorities, and the 1,700 aboard the French naval fleet posted near the Lebanese coast), around 1,000 Spaniards, and smaller units from Scandinavian countries, Poland or Belgium. For historical reasons easy to understand, Germany will avoid sending troops to the ground near Israel; Britain, already bogged down in Iraq and rather unpopular with middle-east public opinion, has its own reasons to stand clear. Both, however, will provide logistical support to Unifil.

The rest of this new force should be filled by non-European countries: some majority-Muslim (possibly including secular Turkey), as well as – and why not – two permanent members of the UN Security Council: Russia and China. The force will be led by France until February 2007, then by Italy.

The main reason for the delay in France's agreement to send a sizeable force – that is, in addition to the more than 400 who are already in Lebanon, the first of the new Unifil force to arrive – was its security concerns over the definition of the new Unifil. Since its creation in 1978, after all, Unifil had been no more than a bystander or a cheap punching-ball for the warring parties in the region. This time, Jacques Chirac has sought vital guarantees from both the Shi'a Hizbollah and Israel that French troops would not be shot at, as part of a wider clarity about Unifil's rules of engagement and the need for a streamlined and more efficient chain of command.

In the diplomatic field, France too has wanted to appear a genuine peacekeeper, and in no way the tool of Israeli and/or American policy. This is vital at a time when the country is not very popular with a number of key forces in the region: Lebanese Shi'a and Syria (for having pressed for a more independent Lebanon, without a strong Syrian presence), and Iran (for standing with Washington, London and Berlin over Tehran's nuclear plans).

Yet France was acting in full knowledge of humiliations its overseas military deployments have endured in the last generation – including the fifty-eight paratroopers killed by Shi'a suicide-bombers in Beirut in October 1983, the travails of Bosnia in the mid-1990s and Cote d'Ivoire in 2002 (as well as those French soldiers killed under the Unifil flag). These losses have extended to the diplomatic field: French ambassador Louis Delamare was killed by the Syrians in 1981, and several French citizens were held hostage by pro-Iran Hizbollah for years in the 1980s. Moreover, a number of blue helmets from many nationalities have been killed by the Israeli army, four during the 2006 war.

The United States too has been assaulted in the region – and not only by Islamist terrorists, as in the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed 241 marines. In 1981, its ambassador to Lebanon, John Gunther Dean, was the target of an attempted murder sponsored (as he told this writer) by Israel. During the six-day war of June 1967, Israel had already sunk "by mistake" an US warship, the USS Liberty, killing thirty-four servicemen and wounding 173.

A frontpage story in Le Figaro on 30 August, reporting that France is planning to deliver heavy weapons (artillery, tanks, and missiles) to southern Lebanon, confirms the depth of France's concerns about its forces' security in the region. It makes clear that the French military remains even now distrustful of the new rules of engagement, and of the promises made by Israel and Hizbollah alike. A French force without any air cover is vulnerable, and wants to have some deterrence on the ground.

In any case, French toughness over Unifil – which was, even if more discreetly, shared by the other main troop-providers – already shown its worth, as Unifil's definition has already been tightened. As a result, its peacekeepers will be allowed to open fire if threatened, and crucial decisions will be made by military on the ground and not UN diplomats/bureaucrats in New York.

A military's wisdom

But will all that be enough to ensure Unifil's success? The result is still open, for everyone agrees that the mission will be very risky and that its casualties might run into dozens, if not more. A number of post-14 August incidents have shown that the cessation of hostilities is fragile; moreover, the two warring parties (as well as Hizbollah's patrons, Iran and Syria) are not bound by any international ceasefire, and have never hesitated to shed the blood of civilians, peacekeepers or other busybodies whenever they saw it in their interests to do so.

Thus, whatever may be thought of Jacques Chirac's other troubles, of the domestic implications of his stance at a time when his unpopularity was mounting ahead of the presidential elections in May 2007, or of France's rivalry with Italy to lead the new Unifil – the utmost care in military matters was indeed paramount. Chirac's personal commitment to Lebanon is undoubted, even if he was smart enough to seize this opportunity to improve his dismal image among French voters (see "France and Lebanon: diplomacy of tragedy", 10 August 2006).

But legitimate military concerns are more significant here than political calculations. The French military establishment itself has been reluctant to go to Lebanon without proper security guarantees, and has let this be known. This was not "cowardice" or "ridicule" – as Paris has been mocked by some foreign media in light of its reluctance to commit thousands of soldiers without a clear mandate (and not just from the usual suspects, Washington and London, from whom tirades about French pusillanimity are tiresomely familiar). The central fact is that you can't barter soldiers' lives in exchange for any narrow advantage that orchestration of political or media speculation might grant you.

France, after all, was always preparing to back its words by action. A number of key army officers had quietly "disappeared" from family holidays in August, long before the official decision was announced, obviously for training for a new mission in southern Lebanon. In any event, the outlook of France's military has - as in most democratic countries – profoundly changed in recent decades. The officer class has moved far from the image of warmongers prone to rightwing military coups that characterised it during previous wars; its members have become more alike their compatriots (a process symbolised by the appointment of a woman defence minister, Michele Alliot-Marie) – and far less generous in shedding enlisted men's blood, and their own, in adventurous missions.

It is now the military that shuns wars decided by politicians with little or no military experience, and demands guarantees for its soldiers that they won't die unprotected, in useless missions, or sitting targets for terrorists (as with the US forces in Iraq). Such reluctance might displease George W Bush, Tony Blair and others, but it has become a modern political fact as well as a blessing in disguise. In an age when citizens justly fear irresponsible politicians, shouldn't we applaud democratic and responsible generals and colonels properly hesitant about going into a landscape after, or during, battle?

True, it will take time until Unifil will be at full strength along the Israel-Lebanon border. Neither of Israel's two main reasons to launch a full-scale war – disarmament of Hizbollah and the staunching of its arms pipeline via Syria – has been achieved, and only a strengthened Lebanese government and army can secure them. Both of the main combatants, then, will continue with their war dances as a way of keeping their people down or their foreign backers sweet. The threat of provocation will remain ever-present.

The United States won't intervene except to support Israel, a policy pursued by the Bush administration since the very day of its entry at the White House in January 2001. A patchwork of 15,000 blue helmets, however well-equipped and dedicated to its mission, cannot be expected to do better than tens of thousands of heavily-armed Israeli soldiers. There is no solution to the Israeli-Lebanon war, or indeed the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, except a political one. What is lacking is the same as it has always been: political will.