AFTER FRANCE INDICATED THAT it would contribute a paltry 200 additional soldiers to a Lebanese peacekeeping force, President Bush responded with what can best be described as politesse. He calmly told reporters on Friday: "France has said they'd send some troops. We hope they send more."
The president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice needn't be so courteous in their private conversations with French officials. Unlike its lack of enthusiasm for the war in Iraq (which led to the renaming of French fries as "freedom fries"), France's promise of hundreds rather than thousands of troops for the Lebanese operation really is a slap in the face to the United States, not to mention an impediment to the cause of peace in Israel and Lebanon.
France, which has historic ties to Lebanon and friendly relations with other Arab states, played a key role in negotiating the U.N. Security Council resolution that provides for a 15,000-person peacekeeping force to assist the Lebanese army in pacifying the border with Israel. The U.S. worked cooperatively with France on the cease-fire resolution, with the tacit assumption that France would support its diplomacy with a significant contribution to the expanded United Nations force in Lebanon.
Instead, to the dismay of U.N. officials, France, which has 200 troops in the current U.N. force, offered an additional contribution of only 200 engineers and a backup contingent of 1,700 troops at sea, who wouldn't fall under U.N. command. If France, a key architect of the peacekeeping plan, doesn't have faith in its viability, why should other nations?
The stingy French offer is more than a symbolic setback. It calls into question the practicality of the U.N.'s plan for a quick deployment of 3,500 peacekeepers in southern Lebanon to augment 2,000 already stationed there. Any delay in deployment runs the risk of encouraging violations of the cease-fire by Hezbollah and a decision by Israel to hedge its bets by leaving some of its soldiers in place.
Because of its involvement in Iraq and its support for Israel, the U.S. is in no position to supply troops to the U.N. force. That leaves France, like the U.S. a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, as the most influential member of the new force. Its contribution should reflect that prominence.