Washington is sending up a trial balloon about stationing NATO troops as peacekeepers on the West Bank. The Jerusalem Post reports that former NATO supreme commander General James Jones, now the Bush administration's special envoy to the Middle East, is floating the idea to various European countries.
It is a spectacularly bad idea. If there is a silver lining to Jones's initiative, it is that U.S. policy makers are at least not contemplating including American troops in such a force. Apparently, Washington believes that masochism is stronger among European populations than it is among the American people. One wonders, though, whether U.S. leaders would be able to resist the inevitable call from other NATO members for equality of sacrifice and for the exercise of U.S. alliance leadership.
Even if the United States can avoid direct involvement in such a peacekeeping venture, the proposal is fraught with serious problems. It would place NATO troops in the midst of perhaps the most volatile portion of the congenitally turbulent Middle East. Jones has reportedly indicated that the deployment would be purely temporary, giving the Israeli Defense Force the opportunity to withdraw from the West Bank as one phase of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. But both Israel and the United States have learned through bitter experience that "temporary" military measures in the Middle East have a nasty habit of becoming long-term commitments.
Worse, Western troops on the West Bank would be perfect targets, literally as well as symbolically, for Islamic militants. Radicals would undoubtedly portray the deployment as yet another Western imperial occupation of Muslim territory and would use that argument to recruit more fighters to the ranks of terrorist organizations. Even worse, the peacekeepers would become targets for the guns and bombs of the radicals. Those soldiers might has well wear bull's-eyes on their uniforms.
Even if they sought to be neutral peacekeepers, they would inevitably be caught up in the rivalries and struggles in the Palestinian territories. What would they do, for example, if there was renewed violence between followers of Hamas and supporters of Fatah? Or if Hamas fighters launched new attacks against Israeli settlements? There is no such thing as a truly neutral military intervention. The mere presence of peacekeeping troops works to the benefit of some factions and the disadvantage of others. And factions that are placed at a disadvantage have a big incentive to attack the peacekeepers.
The United States discovered that reality to its sorrow in Lebanon during the 1980s. American troops initially intervened as part of an accord to enable Israeli forces to end their siege of West Beirut. The United States had no intention of taking sides in Lebanon's ongoing civil war, but U.S. forces soon became allied with the country's Christian government against Muslim factions. Soon a U.S. battleship began shelling hostile Muslim villages, and American troops engaged in skirmishes with Muslim militias. Those actions led to retaliation, and the spiral of violence culminated in the truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Marines.
NATO risks a similar tragedy if it is foolish enough to become entangled in the Palestinian territories. The suggestion for such a deployment is not new. More than six years ago, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman put forth a similar idea, but U.S. policy makers fortunately spurned the proposal. The Bush administration should bury it again—this time, hopefully, for good.