WORLD

Lessons from the first peacekeeper

It wasn’t Lester Pearson. It was Tommy Burns, and he knew its failings.

SEAN M. MALONEY October 9 2006
WORLD

Lessons from the first peacekeeper

It wasn’t Lester Pearson. It was Tommy Burns, and he knew its failings.

SEAN M. MALONEY October 9 2006

Lessons from the first peacekeeper

It wasn’t Lester Pearson. It was Tommy Burns, and he knew its failings.

WORLD

SEAN M. MALONEY

“Iraq is everything, Lebanon nothing...The balance of power in turn depends upon the outcome in the Middle East. And in the present circumstances, the outcome in the Middle East depends upon the outcome in Iraq.”

Commentary from the summer of 2006? Surprisingly not: the year was 1958 and the quote is from American columnist Joseph Alsop. Insurgents, funded by Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser, instigated a guerrilla war in an attempt to take down the Leba-

nese government, while a vicious coup took place in Iraq and another plot was uncovered against King Hussein’s Jordan; these events prompted Anglo-American forces to intervene in Lebanon and Jordan. That spring, an unarmed Canadian military observer serving with the UN in the Middle East was killed, most likely by Israeli forces. Plus ça change...

Today, the world’s attention has been drawn off Lebanon as French-led peacekeeping forces have moved in. Canada, supposedly the inventor of UN peacekeeping, is conspicuous by its absence. Should Canada stay out?

When the Lebanese crisis threatened to escalate in 1958, Canada had been engaged in Middle East peacekeeping for four years. Canadian troops were involved in three missions, two of them led by a remarkable man, Canadian Lt.-Gen. E.L.M. “Tommy” Burns,

who was practising UN peacekeeping in the region two years before Lester B. Pearson “invented” it in the 1956 Suez crisis. An intellectual, libertarian iconoclast, poker player and sexual athlete, Burns has been Orwellianized by Canadian history. Fired for standing up to the potential misuse of Canadian troops in Italy during the Second World War, he was exiled to Veterans Affairs but rehabilitated when there was a need for an experienced Canadian in the Mideast.

Burns’s observations on the viability of

THE UN HAS OBLIGED THE ARABS AND ISRAELIS TO END THEIR WAR, BUT NOT TO MAKE PEACE/ HE SAID

UN peacekeeping resonate today. Of his books, the most important is Between Arab and Israeli, published in 1962. Unfortunately, Canadians will not be able to read it because it has been out of print for nearly 40 years. One attempt to republish it failed because some believe it to be anti-Semitic. It’s not. It’s merely critical of Israeli (and, incidentally, Arab) behaviour at the time—a risky stance for Burns, coming some 20 years

after the Holocaust, but one since borne out by Israel’s “new historians” Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris, who also contend that Israel was an aggressive co-belligerent and not a passive victim in the conflicts of the day.

Burns explained that regional dissension revolved around four problems: the status and disposition of Arab refugees from the 1948 war; the delineation of boundaries between Israel and her neighbours; the need for compensation for Arabs who left property in Israel; and the status ofjerusalem. As he put it, delegates to UN armistice commissions “were apt to wrangle like shyster lawyers, with the object of securing a condemnation of the other party in the strongest terms for subsequent political and propaganda use.” Bums believed that UN intervention was part of the problem, and the organization “has almost no powers to oblige any nation to make peace. More explicitly, it lacks power to impose terms of peace. The result is that the UN has obliged the Arabs and the Israelis to end their war, but it cannot oblige them to make peace.” That was the dilemma of Cold War peacekeeping: the UN could freeze a situation in place but could not solve it. The belligerents wanted to fight and the UN was in no position to stop them.

Burns cautioned Canada about becoming mired in the region: “Sometimes [UN] members were referred to as international policemen, but they were policemen without truncheons... .There was, of course, no peace in the technical sense.” The UN merely acted as a buffer while both sides rearmed: in i960, Burns predicted that UN forces would one day be forced out to make way for another war. Seven years later, Nasser ordered UN troops out of the Sinai; within days, Israel struck—and quadrupled her size in the Six Day War. “Peacekeeping seemed to be discredited and there were many voices in Canada calling for the abandonment of our efforts in this field,” Burns said.

The Middle East cycle will continue, as will the international community’s cyclical deployments of peacekeeping forces to the region. Burns’s four points are now 44 years old, and there is still no will among the belligerents to realistically address them, something to consider any time a debate about Canada’s peacekeeping efforts arises. M