If Not For UNIFIL…

Over at Passport, David Kenner argues that the tree-shooting incident shows that UNIFIL is a failure.  I fear, though, that Kenner undermines his argument with this concluding statement.

The smart defense of UNIFIL has always emphasized that it is essentially a stop-gap measure. True, the argument goes, the force is incapable of stopping Hezbollah or Israel from launching a premeditated attack across the border. But UNIFIL is supposed to prevent random incidents from sparking a larger war that neither of the primary antagonists want: stopping, for example, rockets launched by Sunni extremists operating out of Lebanon’s Palestinian camps — or coordinating between the two countries’ respective armies to avoid skirmishes over a piece of foliage. If UNIFIL can’t fulfill that basic task, the countries that are footing the bill for this venture will soon start to ask: What are we paying these people for, exactly? [emphasis mine]

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. Then, early the next morning,  UNIFIL left no uncertainty about the true location of the arborus belli.  By mid afternoon,  UNIFIL hosted an emergency meeting of the of the “tripartite mechanism,”which is a UNIFIL forum for the Israeli Defense forces Lebanese Armed Forces (and UNIFIL) to discuss operational issues. IDF and LAF commanders met at a UNIFIL base along the blue line—neutral territory–to discuss ways to make sure that something like this does not happen again.

Imagine, for a moment, there were no peacekeeping mission.  Who would have negotiated the ceasefire? Presumably, the IDF and LAF could have worked something out eventually, but how many more people would have been needlessly killed? Also, without UNIFIL who would have the neutral standing to adjudicate the tree claim?  Would we have to wait for a border commission? Finally, the fact that UNFIL already had a mechanism in place by which Lebanese and Israeli military commanders could speak directly to each other–and a neutral location for those discussions to take place — meant that officials did not have to waste time figuring out how and where to meet. That is what international relations people call “lowering transaction costs.” And in this case, the cost would have been measured in lives wasted over “some numbskull” taking potshots across the border. 

In my book, UNIFIL lived up to its expectation to “prevent random incidents from sparking a larger war that neither of the primary antoginists want.”   To be sure, there legitimate reasons to criticize UNIFIL. The mere presence of troops on the ground has not, for example, prevented Israel from violating Lebanese airspace.  And then, of course, there are persistent rumors that Hezbollah is re-arming.  But in this case, UNFIL ably fulfilled its most basic task of preventing the outbreak of a larger war. 

What did this cost the United States?  Well, the United States pays 27% of UNIFIL’s $518 million annual budget, which comes to about $140 million per year. For comparison’s sake, that is about half of what the United States spends on Afghanistan per day

Rather than question the return on our investment in UNFIL, maybe we ought to calculate the cost of renewed violence in southern Lebanon?  

UPDATE: Kenner responds.  He says I am moving the goalposts and that UNFIL ought to judged by it’s ability to prevent these kinds of skirmishes, not — as I argue — by its abilty to prevent the outbreak of another major war.