Limited Imagination

Why the U.N.’s timid resolution misses the mark.

Condoleezza Rice and John Bolton

It started with a bang and ended with a bureaucratic maneuver. It started with talk of change for the better in the Middle East and ended with the same crummy old neighborhood. It started with the promise to “dismantle,” to “destroy,” and to “eliminate”—and ended with no more than modest modifications to the deplorable status-quo ante. But most of all, it started with prophets and pundits declaring it the most vital front in the fight against militant Islam, against extremism and terrorism—and ended up by being treated as yet another local border dispute. Not good battling evil, not righteousness fighting wickedness, but just the same old war between Israel and the Arabs. Two sides reprising an overfamiliar song.

Stories of the glorious hours leading to the final drafting and acceptance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 are now spreading like fire on a Lebanese hill. How Condi Rice went to New York, risking her credibility. How diplomats and officials worked late nights finalizing the wording of the resolution. People pleased with it will praise the secretary of state for her resoluteness; others who think the resolution is a shameful ending to the war will blame her for the same reason, saying that she got carried away because of her ideological weakness and because she can’t stand the criticism of former colleagues in the papers.

But the truth is that there’s nothing inherently magnificent—or wrong—about Security Council Resolution 1701, which effectively ended the war in Lebanon this morning. It carefully balances the moral obligation to stand on the right side of history—blaming Hezbollah for the eruption of violence—with the more practical need to provide for an end to the bloodshed. It is beneficial enough for the weak Lebanese government, but it contains promises for Israel, too. It takes responsibility for the future but frames this task in a manageable way, so as to make it possible for U.N. member states to participate in the international stabilization force.

Describing Richard Nixon’s first visit to Italy as the newly elected president, Henry Kissinger provided a wonderful portrait of the way their hosts approached the world: “Italian ministers acted as if they were too worldly-wise to pretend that their views on international affairs could decisively affect events,” he wrote. Still, the Italians of today—arguably no different than their predecessors in their indifference to meddling in the affairs of others—will be sending their sons and daughters to augment the international force in southern Lebanon.

And this is exactly where the Security Council failed to take a stand that will turn the conflict from “just a war” to “a just war.” The resolution revisits the same measures that we’ve seen implemented in the past: separating the combatants, establishing a demilitarized zone, promising to prevent the rearming of the aggressor, deploying neutral forces.

This approach worked well in the case of Israel and Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, or in the case of Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights. It worked well because it separated states and conventional armies. It can work with a border dispute, with conventional conflict, with a negotiable difference of opinion—but it fails to grasp the uniqueness of the struggle between Israel and Hezbollah.

Three weeks ago, challenging a growing trend, I wrote that this war “contrary to the grandiose prognostications of Armageddon-obsessed pundits—will not bring about World War III or the end of the West or the defeat of extremist Islamism. It is now clear that the war in Lebanon is a limited, contained war, with modest goals and rational expectations.” After reading and reporting on Resolution 1701, there’s good reason for me to feel vindicated—except for one thing: It got to be even more “limited” than it should have been.

The war was limited in the scope of the fighting and, thank God, in the amount of human blood that was spilled. It was contained geographically to Lebanon, and it didn’t involve any countries except Israel. It was long—longer than many expected—but it did end after a few weeks, rather than the months that some commentators predicted. All these were positive limitations.

But in one respect, this war proved to be too limited: The solution that brings it to an end lacks imagination. It fails to grasp the stakes and the risks this war has brought about. It was crafted in haste to halt the violence, but it didn’t take into account that this was not just another Arab-Israeli war fought over claims on territory and pride, as we’ve seen in the past. It was a war between a mighty military and the most capable terror organization in the world—and it ended in a stalemate, making it clear that taking over a country and fighting a war is no longer too demanding for such a force.

So, the chances that 1701 will bring calm and security for both sides are also limited. Hezbollah “will attempt to prevent a comprehensive agreement and to undermine the provisions of Resolution 1701 that do not serve the organization’s interests,” predicted Israel’s Reut Institute. And that’s probably the most optimistic expert opinion.

As Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has already said, the rules of engagement for the international force will clearly reflect that it is a “peace mission.” In other words, Hezbollah will keep its finger on the trigger, enabling it to restart the war whenever it chooses. Despite Resolution 1701, the international community is not really committed to “help secure a permanent ceasefire and a long-term solution to the conflict.”