“A Monumentally Stupid Idea”

That is how Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East specialist at Boston University, characterized a proposal to send UN peacekeepers to southern Lebanon, an idea championed by Prime Minister Tony Blair and others at the just-concluded G-8 summit.

Norton should know. He once deployed to southern Lebanon as part of a small U.N. observer force that has been there since Israel’s first incursion in 1978. He is also a retired army colonel, a former West Point professor, and the author of several books on Middle East politics and culture.

But Norton is not alone in questioning the wisdom of an expanded UN force in southern Lebanon, as this Washington Post article by Peter Baker and Robin Wright points out.

“It’s a non-starter,” said Timur Goksel, who, like Norton, served with the U.N. force. He now teaches in Beirut. Goksel told the Post, “If the intention is to observe, there is already a force in place. If they are talking of a deterrent force to prevent fighting, it will immediately be seen as an occupation force here. And when you have an occupation force, no matter what your flag, even under the United Nations, that’s when the trouble starts. This is a most ridiculous idea. Nobody will accept it.”

But some people are accepting it – and promoting it, despite the fact that an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon is unlikely to succeed in bringing an end to the violence.

Consider the tragi-comic exploits of the current UN mission, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The force was first sent there in March 1978, nine days after Israel invaded southern Lebanon in pursuit of PLO terrorists holed up in the territory, and UNIFIL has since witnessed not one but TWO more Israeli incursions into Lebanon, in June 1982 and now in July 2006. On Monday, as the Post reports, UNIFIL issued a statement complaining “that it was unable to supply food and water to its own troops, much less help deliver humanitarian aid to civilians, because Israel had not guaranteed free passage.”

The international impulse to just do something – despite the long track record of failure – might be overwhelming. An argument (not a very good one) could be made that a larger force with a clearer mandate might succeed where the current UNIFIL mission has failed.

Regardless of those particular details, however, the U.S. military should not be involved. As Norton warns in the closing line of the Post article: “The military is overstretched. Most of the army is wrapped up in Iraq. A deployment in Lebanon would potentially be interminable.” 

Our men and women in uniform have more than enough on their plate right now, and the last thing that they (or we) need is to become embroiled in yet another long-running conflict.