- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2006

ROAIX, France. — In recent years, Europe has been looking for ways to take a leading role in world affairs. Lebanon may be furnishing the long-awaited opportunity for Europeans. But then again, if you look at Europe’s record in the post-Cold War era, it may not.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for the immediate deployment of a 15,000-strong peace-keeping force in the southern Lebanese stronghold of Hezbollah. However, the European Union, which endorses the idea, has been slow to respond, with the notable exception of Italy, which immediately pledged up to 3,000 troops. French President Jacques Chirac managed to come up with an initial offering of all of 200 troops. Now, that’s leadership for you from the man who once talked about “balancing” the United States on the world scene.

While the EU has achieved global economic clout, Europe is a midget in military affairs, with the important exception of Britain. In the Balkans in the 1990s, European inaction and failed diplomacy led to eventual and reluctant U.S. intervention, much to the humiliation and regret of Europeans, who knew they had flunked their first test of the post-Cold War era — dealing with a crisis in their own back yard.

Then came September 11. In the first flush of feelings of solidarity with Americans, NATO countries invoked Article 5 of the NATO charter, stating that an attack on one is an attack on all. The Bush administration, meanwhile, having observed the debacle in the Balkans, chose to take on the Taliban government of Afghanistan without NATO support. Europeans were humiliated and smarted under what they perceived as a rejection of their goodwill offer.

As war with Iraq loomed, France, in particular, stepped up its ambitions to act as the leader of global powers seeking to balance the United States, with a French-led Europe as the main counterweight. This produced serious French and German clashes with the Bush administration in the U.N. Security Council and the unprecedented emergence of an embryonic Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, causing a serious rift in the trans-Atlantic relationship (and incidentally destroying any hope of a common European front).

Except for a few humanitarian interventions in Africa, and Italian-led military action in the 1990s to stop the flow of illegal immigrants from Albania, Europe still very much needs a way to prove itself as a military power. Despite plans drawn up in Brussels for a European rapid reaction force, and despite attempts at forging a European Foreign and Security Policy, the kind of clout that comes with military power continues to elude Europeans — and cause them great anxiety.

So, it is hardly surprising, though it is ironic on many levels, that France in particular and Europe in general are dragging their feet on the proposed U.N. peace-keeping mission to Lebanon. In fact, one might well worry for the people of Lebanon who may find themselves under the protection of a U.N. force initially to be led by France, their former colonial overlord. They already have experience of the 2,000-strong U.N. observer force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, which has been there since 1978, doing precious little good. With friends like these …

France has prevaricated, citing uncertain rules of engagement. Criticized for the country’s paltry response, and shamed by the much stronger Italian initiative, French Defense Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie has noted that France already has 1,600 troops in Lebanon, who are actually there helping to evacuate French citizens. Although they are not wearing U.N. blue helmets, they are giving the United Nations logistical support, which is almost the same thing, in her view.

Other European countries that might contribute to an initial force of 3,500, which is now the diminished hope of Mr. Annan, include Italy, Belgium, Spain and some Scandinavian nations. Why on earth France would be in charge of a force in which it is in a clear minority remains a puzzle. There is a great deal of concern among Europeans, however, about land-mines, and about potential clashes with Israel. Many countries have leapt at the opportunity to send ships to help monitor sea traffic off the Lebanese coast if Israel lifts its naval blockade, considering caution the better part of valor.

In Europe, the United States often comes in for scathing criticism for its conduct of world affairs. It would be highly refreshing, not to mention valuable for European credibility, if Europe really stepped up to take the lead — and found out firsthand just how difficult it can be.

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