Where Did the French Go?

Friday, August 18, 2006

THROUGHOUT this summer's crisis in relations between Israel and Lebanon, France has been liberal with its advice and admonitions, as befits the major power it claims to be. Now that the time has arrived to assume the responsibility of a major power, however, France appears suddenly bashful. The consequence for the peace deal it helped broker could be calamitous.

During the fighting that began when Hezbollah crossed into Israel to kidnap two soldiers and kill several others, France pressed for Israel to cease its military actions. At one point, it supported Arab demands that Israel withdraw before an international force was in place. Just this week, France's foreign minister was telling Israel to end its blockade of Lebanese ports and airports.

Yet, as it questioned Israel's methods, France claimed to be supporting many of its goals. The blockade was intended to prevent Iranian and Syrian arms shipments to Hezbollah, and France said it supported an end to the illicit flow of arms. Israel's incursion was meant to disarm or weaken Hezbollah's militia, and France said it, too, wanted a Lebanon with only one army -- the national armed forces.

How to square this circle? According to a U.N. Security Council resolution crafted by France and the United States and adopted unanimously last Friday, the Lebanese armed forces would become the only armed force in Lebanon. They would deploy to the south, where Hezbollah had enjoyed a monopoly of military power. They would bar all unauthorized arms shipments into the country. Because they are weak and poorly trained, they would be backed by a U.N. force with as many as 15,000 troops. And, U.N. officials were led to believe, France would take a major role in leading and supplying troops to this international force, which would in turn encourage other nations to participate. Asked on the day the resolution was adopted about the deployment of the U.N. force, France's U.N. ambassador said, "I think it can be very swift."

Well, not so swift, it turns out, and possibly not so robust. Now that Israel is withdrawing and Hezbollah fighters are emerging with a swagger, French President Jacques Chirac says he is ready to send only an engineering company of 200 soldiers to join 200 serving in the current, and impotent, U.N. force in Lebanon. The French general who had been commanding that force will remain until his tour expires in February; this is apparently as much as the French had in mind when they talked about "leading" the force.

French officials said last night that they have not ruled out a larger contribution. It all depends on the rules of engagement, other nations' contributions and other matters under delicate discussion in New York. Let's hope that Mr. Chirac's 200 troops are not in fact the last word. Other nations will be less likely to contribute if France remains on the sidelines, and without a substantial force the peace settlement -- fragile to begin with -- is far less likely to endure. That, in turn, would seem to offer precisely the wrong lesson for a European nation eager to provide international leadership and to prove that diplomacy and peacekeeping can accomplish more than war.

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