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Moving the goalposts on UNIFIL

Mark Leon Goldberg, over at UN Dispatch, responded to my criticism of UNIFIL yesterday by highlighting its role in de-escalating the conflict following the clashes that killed 4 people on Monday. Andrew Exum has also published a thoughtful defense of UNIFIL. Here’s Goldberg’s argument: Preventing this skirmish from becoming something bigger is exactly what UNFIL ...

MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images
MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images

Mark Leon Goldberg, over at UN Dispatch, responded to my criticism of UNIFIL yesterday by highlighting its role in de-escalating the conflict following the clashes that killed 4 people on Monday. Andrew Exum has also published a thoughtful defense of UNIFIL. Here’s Goldberg’s argument:

Preventing this skirmish from becoming something bigger is exactly what UNFIL has done over the last few days. After 30 minutes of gunfire and four killed, UNIFIL helped to negotiate a ceasefire. That is a pretty rapid response in my book.

This strikes me as pretty thin gruel. It should be eminently possible to prevent, not merely mitigate the consequences of, a clash between Israel and the Lebanese Armed Forces — an organization that is ill-prepared for conflict, a recipient of U.S. military assistance, and particularly sensitive to domestic and international political constraints. UNIFIL’s failure to avert this incident, which served no rational purpose for either side, is a clear sign of its declining ability to keep the peace along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

That’s why I began my previous post by recounting the high hopes for UNIFIL following the 2006 war. Back then, observers speculated that it could prevent Hezbollah from rearming itself — or, at least, reestablishing its positions south of the Litani River. UNIFIL commanders were talking tough about Israeli overflights, hinting at the use of force to stop them. Today, some experts are trying to talk themselves into the notion that the fact these clashes only killed four people, without igniting a full-blown war, is a positive sign. Talk about redefining success! 

Goldberg correctly makes the point that, if all UNIFIL troops departed, the region would be even more unstable. But that’s a straw man argument — of course the situation would be worse. The relevant issue is whether UNIFIL is increasingly powerless to rein in the most aggressive actions of both sides. For the answer to that question, all you have to do is look to the rightly anxious residents on both sides of the Blue Line, who now have to go about their lives in the aftermath of these clashes.

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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