War Stories

You Say You Want a Resolution

Can the United Nations pass the test it has set for itself?

Kofi Annan. Click image to expand.
Kofi Annan

The United Nations’ cease-fire resolution, passed unanimously by the Security Council on Saturday, is a major test not only of whether peace is possible on the Israel-Lebanon border but also of whether the United Nations has a serious role to play in 21st-century conflicts.

“There is no such thing as the United Nations,” John Bolton famously sneered at a 1994 conference of the World Federalists Association—a line that prompted much gasping when it was dug out and played back during his confirmation hearings to become President Bush’s U.N. ambassador.

But Bolton had a point: The United Nations is an assembly of sovereign states and, as such, has no real power or authority, no independent status as an overriding entity.

Yet U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 comes close to granting the world body precisely that status. It imposes a “full cessation of hostilities” (which, so far, seems to be holding). It deploys a substantial international peacekeeping force (15,000 troops) along a wide zone of southern Lebanon and authorizes those troops “to resist attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties.” And it bars from that zone any armed personnel other than the U.N. force and the Lebanese army. No Israel, no Hezbollah—and, given the width of the zone, no Hezbollah missiles with the range to hit Israel.

The Security Council has passed such resolutions before. But 1701 marks the first of its kind—a resolution that calls for halting a war and keeping a peace—since the world noticeably began to tumble into anarchy.

During the Cold War years, the Soviet-American standoff inflamed many “small wars,” but it also kept the conflagrations from spreading. After the Soviet Union collapsed, many believed that the balance of power would tip totally in the United States’ favor. The second half of Bolton’s 1994 remark is usually forgotten. After noting that there’s no such thing as the United Nations, he said, “There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States.”

That’s no longer true, if it ever was. President Bush’s inability to control Iraq or Afghanistan has led many allies and foes to doubt both the legitimacy and the effectiveness of American power. Bush himself seems to realize this to some degree. When asked at his press conference last week why U.S. troops wouldn’t take part in the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, he replied that they “would create a sensation around the world that may not enable us to achieve our objective.”

The end of the Cold War led to the fragmentation of power, not its consolidation in American hands. No one country can impose order, much less its own concept of order, on the Middle East or most other turbulent regions—not the United States, nor for that matter Israel (whose own image of invincibility has taken a beating this past month).

This may explain the sudden, keen interest in letting the Security Council take control of the crisis in Lebanon—because no country can do so on its own. Even Resolution 1701 seems not to have been the brainchild of any one government but a compromise worked out by diplomats from all the countries involved—most critically, the United States and France, an alliance that’s been dormant since the days of Bordeaux boycotts and freedom fries.

Maybe the Security Council can’t control the conflict, either. As tests go, this is a tough one. In addition to a permanent cease-fire, Resolution 1701 calls for “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon” (i.e., the disarmament of Hezbollah) and a ban on the “sales or supply of arms or related materiel to Lebanon except as authorized by its government” (i.e., the cessation of arms traffic to Hezbollah from Syria or Iran). The resolution further notes that a permanent cease-fire “requires” these steps.

But who will enforce those clauses, and how? Meanwhile, the resolution’s centerpiece is running into sequencing problems. The Lebanese government canceled a meeting on the disarmament of Hezbollah after a Hezbollah spokesman announced that the group was unwilling even to discuss the matter.

Hezbollah says its militias won’t leave southern Lebanon until Israeli forces also leave. Israeli leaders say they won’t leave until Hezbollah also leaves. Lebanese officials say they won’t deploy their army in the south until they’re assured that they and the U.N. peacekeepers are the only armed forces in the area. Yet, according to Resolution 1701, the U.N. forces can enter southern Lebanon only to “accompany and support the Lebanese armed forces.”

Each group has good reasons for their hesitations. Hezbollah doesn’t want to leave Israel as an occupation force. Israel doesn’t want to leave a vacuum that Hezbollah could fill. The Lebanese army doesn’t want to get in the middle of shooting between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militias. The United Nations wants to be seen as assisting the Lebanese government, not as an unwanted interloper. It’s a Catch-22: Who’s going to make the first move, and under what authority?

In other words, there’s a chance that this security arrangement could collapse from the get-go. But if it does, the Security Council might collapse, too—and, with it, the only international forum that currently has anything approximating the will and the legitimacy to contain the conflict. Resolution 1701 is a good first step. Now it’s time to see if the major powers deserve to be called “major powers”—if they’ll take the heroic measures and risks of translating fine words into firm actions.