Into the war

AS SECRETARY OF STATE Condoleezza Rice heads toward the Middle East to contemplate whether Lebanon, the Humpty Dumpty of the region, can be put back together again, the tragic lessons of shattered states past are worth contemplating. It's also worth acknowledging that the Bush administration has gotten at least one of those lessons right: Weak and failing states provide a power vacuum that the most violent and extreme groups are best equipped to fill.

It happened in Afghanistan after the battered Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989. Ripped asunder by warring factions, the miserable nation was ripe for eventual takeover by the Taliban and the parasitic Al Qaeda. It happened again in Somalia, which, after years of intermittent civil war, was the epitome of anarchy. Now come the Islamists to fill a Middle East vacuum with capricious law and brutish order.

If it seems farfetched to compare cultured, urbane Lebanon with the barbarous Afghanistan or Somalia of the 1990s, consider what these nations have in common: a weak or nonexistent central government unable to control the militias waging war on its territory; an intractable history of religious, ethnic or clan strife; and a propensity among the neighbors to arm, fund and otherwise encourage the warring factions.

It's doubtful that Israel's latest war with Lebanon will be successful in rooting out militants; clearly, its 1982 invasion and subsequent 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon failed at the task. But having smashed much of the nation's infrastructure, not to mention any chance at political accord, Israel probably has succeeded in creating a new power vacuum in the lands across its northern border. Who will fill it? Can any Lebanese political force supplant Hezbollah in the bombed-out and embittered south? Can any international military force establish a meaningful buffer zone between Lebanon and Israel?

What's left of the Lebanese army cannot possibly be deployed to keep the peace in southern Lebanon. Sending Christian and Druze soldiers into bombed-out Shiite territory is a recipe for reigniting civil war. The United States, overextended in Iraq and viewed more than ever as an Israeli backer, couldn't and shouldn't send peacekeepers, as Rice acknowledged Friday. Europe is focused on its NATO duties in Afghanistan.

And the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon has been notoriously ineffective. Would a fresh contingent of blue helmets -- if the United Nations would send them -- be any more effective at containing Hezbollah and deterring Israeli attacks? Only if their rules of engagement allowed combat.

So, if Lebanon, Israel, the United States, Europe and the U.N. cannot enforce a peace, who can? It's a fiendishly difficult problem. But the head scratching should start in the Arab capitals. If they truly want a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- and there is some doubt that they do -- might some Arab states be part of a multinational peacekeeping force?

It sounds like a naive question. Yet it may be no less improbable than a handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin seemed more than a decade ago. Egypt has one of the Middle East's biggest armies; Morocco boasts a stable and popular government; Algeria has learned from its own experience in bitter internal strife; and Saudi Arabia has the means to fund such a force and the motive to quell a multinational Shiite jihad. Other nations with large Muslim populations, such as Turkey, might also contribute.

Rice is unlikely to discover the road to peace on her trip. But she may succeed in nudging the Arab states to start charting one.

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