Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

The First Rule of Peacekeeping Club

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, By other means. . ., Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Friday July 28, 2006 at 3:22 pm)

It’s an excellent club for politicians. They get to make peace instead of making war, and the public at home isn’t usually sure whether you or the United Nations is in charge. That makes it the best of all possible worlds for a government, which can:

  • mobilize a military response, satisfying those moderates with just a touch of warmongering bloodlust but a mortal fear of the actual sight of blood
  • work with the United Nations, satisfying those moderates keen on multilateralism but reluctant to surrender sovereign control
  • help people (people who need help!), satisfying those moderates eager do good but vaguely uncomfortable with the “hippie” politics of some NGOs and utterly ignorant of the Red Cross Society

Which can, in many countries, be a winning coalition. It’s just good politics.

Which is what, one must assume, was the point of Bill Graham’s rebuke to Stephen Harper’s musings on the UN mission in Lebanon: UNTSO. After the Israeli bombing of one UNTSO position left Canadian Major Paeta Hess-von Krudener missing and presumed dead, the Prime Minister questioned the fact that the UN observers had not been withdrawn from the area, given the severity of the conflict.

This prompted the Leader of the Opposition to call the Prime Minister’s comment “completely unacceptable”, as reported in this article:

Graham says Harper seems to have forgotten that Canada has been part of UN missions for several decades.

That seems unlikely. The Prime Minister would be somewhat less likely to ask such questions if he thought Canada had little involvement. In point of fact, questioning the effective deployment of UN forces should really be the least the government does to ensure the safety of Canadians who serve in them, as at least one former observer pointed out.

Then why object so strenuously to the Prime Minister’s reaction? Should there have been greater condemnation of the Israeli army? The Liberals’ own statement on the subject does nothing of the kind, so that seems unlikely. It can only be an attempt to stand up for peacekeeping against those who would oppose it — a conclusion supported by Graham’s complaint that support for the Israeli position undermines Canada’s reputation as a peacekeeping nation.

But criticism isn’t always destructive or wrong-headed, any more than peacekeeping is always flawed. What the Liberal Leader is really trying to do is make the connection that, by criticising the conduct of a peacekeeping mission, the Prime Minister proves himself to be against peacekeeping. It’s a variant of the “hidden agenda” argument that’s become so popular in Canada of late.

Hidden agenda theories are popular because of the recent plague of ideological arrogance that has left much of the population, like zombies, aggressive, infectious, and sorely in need of brains. The ideologue can’t comprehend that another position could be valid (or that his could be better) — things are merely right or wrong (a point which all hues of the political spectra cry foolishly). It’s simply too hard to take the fact that an issue is arguable, or that multiple answers could be right, depending on perspective.

The result of admitting no argument is that criticism and counterpoints must be invalid by definition. If so, then they can only be explained in one of two ways. Either the speaker is too stupid to understand that he can’t be right, or she’s making the point for an unknown strategic reason. That unknown reason must be the real agenda, and is divined much as the unknown reason for lightning (a panoply of powerful pushers). Of course, many people who believe in hidden agendas don’t believe that Thor makes thunder; but it might just take a bolt out of the blue for them to make the connection.

What’s worse, given the reality of its existence and the immediacy of threats, debate over the validity of peacekeeping may not be as important as debate over its execution. There are real lives engaged in the activity, and an important way to safeguard them is ensuring that they are properly commanded. It’s not like the mandate for the operation is hard to find (the group in question is presently attached to UNIFIL):

  • Confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon
  • Restore international peace and security
  • Assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area

Which raises the question: what part of the mandate was the group expected to undertake at the time? The UN’s subsequent reorganization of the mission as much as admits the truth of the Prime Minister’s complaint. It’s nothing to suggest that the situation become unsafe following the bombing — it was already unsafe at the time of the bombing, it’s just that either:

  • Command hadn’t realised it
  • or

  • Command hadn’t acted on it

Which of the two is acceptable?

Whether the attack was intentional or not is an argument for another site — the Chilly Wonk just doesn’t know; but it’s not the same issue as a real and important question about the work being done by Canadian soldiers abroad: are the UN missions being properly managed?

The question transcends troop safety and demands to know why the mission has failed at achieving objective 2, despite its frequent reports and demands to both sides? That, too, is an important question.

Asking important questions about the conduct of peacekeeping missions doesn’t go against peacekeeping, doesn’t go against the UN, and doesn’t go against Canada. It just goes against the first rule of political choices: never make the hard argument when the facile one will do.

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