National's decision to stand alongside our allies but not to 'go to war' strengthens our narrative as a small country with its own mind, but beware mission creep

It is any Prime Minister's toughest decision: whether or not to ask young men to fight and perhaps die in foreign fields. While no western country has sent combat troops into battle against Islamic State, military action is underway and the rhetoric from John Key in recent weeks suggested we might be going along for the ride.

National's foreign policy under John Key has been to return us closer to America and more subservient to its foreign policy interests. While Labour under Helen Clark had started the move – after some water had gone under the nuclear-free freeze bridge and 9/11 had taught the US the importance of nurturing any and all democratic friends  – Key has been much more explicit in his cosying up to Washington D.C.

So there was every reason to expect New Zealand to follow Australia's lead and jump into limited military action against Islamic State. That we have not at this stage may be an indication of what his focus groups are telling him about New Zealanders unease about being drawn into another pointless decade-long conflict in the Middle East with little chance of a positive outcome or it may be a sign of considered wisdom. Either way it is a wise choice.

More than anything, it is likely a sign of the importance of our new role on the United Nations Security Council. Key mentions it in just his 10th sentence and it looks to have had a significant part in his decision-making process. We have had diplomats travelling the world for years stressing our independent and peace-loving credentials, so this is a golden opportunity to reinforce to the wider world that we are more than a US puppet. And I'm sure that, while Key likes to stress that Iraq's invitation for foreign forces to enter the country to take its side would be enough to justify action, the lack of a UN mandate means an independent Security Council seat-holder should be seen to take a cautious approach.

So Winston Peters' contention that sending 10 military planners to Iraq is tantamount to being at war is unsound. I get his point, that I-S will lump us into its list of countries that have declared its willingness to act in opposition to its ambitions, but how could we in good conscience not in some form or another join that list?

The good news is that as of today our national narrative as an independent country is strengthened. The ghost of Helen Clark hovers over this decision; clearly it is something America and our other allies can live it, or it would not have been done. But her legacy and her vital choice not to go into Iraq after 9/11 is still setting the tone more than a decade later. We will stand alongside our allies, but not rush to war in their wake.

Which is good as far it goes. The fear of course is of mission creep. Key has not ruled out going further. We all know from Afghanistan that "training" and "capacity building" can quickly turn into fighting and casualties as we saw in Afghanistan. I hope that Key remembers in the months ahead his line from yesterday that "New Zealand cannot and should not fight Iraqis' battle for them".

I can only hope the military planners and 'behind the wire' troops aren't a kind of Trojan horse out of which combat troops pour further down the track.

Why? I'm reluctant to argue that this is not our fight or that we should only be involved when our borders are directly threatened. There will always be exceptions to those rules. More, my objection to fighting this war is that it would be about as futile as any war can be.

This war in Iraq and Syria is many things that we little understand. It is a religious civil war, it is tribal, it is ethnic. The Turks are happy for the Kurds to die, to a point. The Kurds want a new country, as do I-S. Sunni and Shia want to continue their centuries old squabble with more blood. Bashar al-Assad wants to continue his dictatorship. And then there's Iraq.

A few weeks ago on The Nation we asked Key whose side we'd be on if we went to war. He ducked for cover and said we'd be fighting against I-S. But to fight against someone you have to take sides, and in comments yesterday and even on radio this morning Key and Gerry Brownlee have implied we are on the side of Iraq.

This is where we get into trouble. Brownlee unwisely chose to defend the almost defunct Iraqi army as not corrupt, which is laughable. It's barely an army at all. Indeed, Iraq is barely a country.

The West, mostly America, has spent billions holding the country together with glue and bits of diplomatic strong, while Nuri al-Maliki completely undermined any effort at reconciliation amongst the country's disparate groups. Many wiser folk than I have already given up on Iraq as a country – at least the random borders drawn after World War I by other Western powers – and say that the three countries inside it – one Kurdish, one Shia and one Sunni – should be set free. Who knows if that would help or make things worse, but it seems pointless to waste a single New Zealand life in defence of a country that may well not even exist in any real sense in a decade.

And the decision announced on war yesterday does suggest some sympathy of that viewpoint. New Zealand has done about as little as it can. It is important that we somehow show our resistance to I-S and stand alongside so many other allies across the world. Of course a few planners and trainers will do nothing to change the fate of Iraq or its army. Our contribution is practically futile, but sends the right message.

It is all about perception. But in practical terms we must as the weeks go by resist any temptation to be drawn further in.

One quibble: The line Key and Brownlee are using that I-S is the "richest terrorist entity in history" should be challenged, especially in the Middle Eastern context. I can imagine many Muslims pointing to the Crusaders as a richer group of terrorists.

As for the passport issues, I'll allow others more legally qualified to write on those. But I'd ask (Andrew?) how we can talk about cancelling passports when just two months ago Britain backed away from such tactics out of fear it would break international law to make a citizen essentially stateless.

The British were talking more about not allowing UK jihadis back into the country, whereas we seem to be talking about stopping them leaving. Does that make a difference? Or is our approach also at risk of breaking international laws?

It's interesting to note over there that even former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve has written warning of not over-reacting to this perceived terror threat and not undermining our own rule of law and civil liberties out of fear.

Which is a good point to end on. As much as the Prime Minister talks of a new era of terrorism and yes, the internet gives these groups more reach than before, their mission remains the same: To use fear to provoke and confront us.

I haven't written about the intelligence aspects of yesterday's decision because I've not time and I'm less informed on their implications, but they trouble me as does any extension of spying powers. Surely we have enough anti-terror laws by now.

Instead, we should double down on the values and rule of law that set us apart from groups such as I-S and show that they cannot change or define us. Key spoke of his duty to protect our "way of life" and "values". Let's hope he remembers that in the months to come.

Comments (46)

by Richard on November 06, 2014
Richard

The line Key and Brownlee are using that I-S is the "richest terrorist entity in history" should be challenged, especially in the Middle Eastern context. I can imagine many Muslims pointing to the Crusaders as a richer group of terrorists.

Or in the NZ context, the French state. Or in the international context, the US. 

by Tom Semmens on November 06, 2014
Tom Semmens

"...The good news is that as of today our national narrative as an independent country is strengthened..."

Actually, the good news is that despite his best attempts, Curia would have been telling the government that not even John Key could sell this imperial adventure to the New Zealand public. The only thing keeping us independent is the common sense of the people, not our Quisling political establishment which is welded to a narrative of NZ as a loyal client state to whichever agent of western imperialism is the strongest just now.

"...their mission remains the same: To use fear to provoke and confront us..."

Do you think, say, the citizens of Costa Rica are much troubled by the fear of ISIS and have a government demanding they submit to warrantless surveillance to protect them from ISIS? No? Maybe that is because as a country they mind their own business, are not part of a vast western spying network and are not continually playing the obedient client state by fighting in the imperialist wars of their colonial masters? The problem of ISIS is nothing to do with us and is not our problem. Colonial warmongers  like John Key might want to puff up their chests at the thought of the white man's burden, but what happens in the deserts of Syria is of no importance to the citizens of a remote island nation in the south west pacific.

The only "antidote" to Shia ISIS is controlling Wahhabist Saudi Arabia and Sunni Iran, only in the case of Saudi Arabia we have to pretend they are our friend and not involved and in the case of Iran the western imperialists fouled that nest long ago by foisting the Shah on them then spending the last 40 years punishing them for having the temerity to get of him.

Given the generally evil intent and outcomes of western imperialism in the middle east, it long past the day we accepted the days of the white man's burden are over, and stopped meddling in the affairs of others.

by John Hurley on November 06, 2014
John Hurley

National's decision to stand alongside our allies but not to 'go to war' strengthens our narrative as a small country with its own mind

and there's an awful lot of ocean strengthening our  stance!

by Lee Churchman on November 06, 2014
Lee Churchman

It is any Prime Minister's toughest decision: whether or not to ask young men to fight and perhaps die in foreign fields.

I disagree with this completely. When countless numbers of ordinary people were conscripted to fight wars, it was a morally fraught decision, but we now have a small, professional military who know what they're in for when they sign up.You honestly don't need to worry on behalf of people like Willie Apiata - they know what they're doing and they're very good at it.

I find it really odd that the more the human costs of warfighting on society decline, the more melodramatic society's response becomes and the more childish agonising there is about it. Key resembles a participant in one of those high school parliaments. He's not to be taken seriously.

by Lee Churchman on November 06, 2014
Lee Churchman

Here's a generally good rule: if anyone starts talking about how deep and morally fraught a decision is, you can deduce either that it isn't a deep and morally fraught decision at all (because if it were, they would be too busy to bother pointing this out), or that they're too cowardly to own a decision they've already made and are just saying this to cover their backsides.

by Wayne Mapp on November 06, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Tom Semmens raises an interesting point here, which is whether New Zealand still sees itself as a western state.

I listened to the parliamentary debate yesterday. Both National and Labour place themselves in the tradition, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, as western states. Clearly Helen Clark did so in respect of Afghanistan, and at least to some extent with Iraq (we sent an NZ Army Engineer Sqn to Basra, plus a heap of other assets to The Gulf). But the left wing Alliance blew itself up on the deployment to Afghanistan.

Listening to Metiria Turei clearly indicates that she does not see New Zealand in this light. Instead we should be more like Chile (or Costa Rica). As a general rule South American nations do not participate in western causes, and neither are they asked to do so. And in part that is because they are not seen as western states.

But as Defence Minister, I noted that some of the South American nations did have some modest deployments in Afghanistan. There is some level of connection to the west, just as Malaysia and Singapore also both made modest contributions to Afghanistan.

I would say that for 70 to 80% of New Zealand's population, we are clearly still a western state. This includes many of the new immigrants, who come here because they want to be part of the west. And there is an understanding that being part of the west comes with some obligations. Even in the context of an independent foreign policy, we know we cannot opt out of all the western causes, and still be thought of as a contributing member of the west.

But we clearly have more flexibility than Australia. Being an ally of the United States means doing heavy lifting when asked. But few Australians would be willing to trade away ally status to avoid being asked.

But 20% of New Zealand's population is clearly uncomfortable with this western identification. The Green Party, the Maori Party and some of the activist left in Labour (and most of the commenters on The Standard and some on this site) would sooner have New Zealand in a different space. Either as a neutral like Switzerland, or like Chile. In this area we can't even use the Scandinavian example. Based on what I saw in Afghanistan and with the deployments against ISIL, most of the Scandinavians know who they identify with. Perhaps Finland is the exception.

This issue is also one of the reasons why the Greens can never do a meaningful deal with National. Their world view is just too different. While there might be specific areas of mutual interest, they are literally worlds apart.

 

by Richard on November 06, 2014
Richard

@Wayne:

You are wrong. Many people against, say, contributing to US wars are perfectly fine with being part of "the west". They simply just want "the west" to be different and better than it is.

Just because I like democracy and American TV, it doesn't mean I am compelled to support American resource wars in the Middle East.

by Tom Semmens on November 06, 2014
Tom Semmens


"...Tom Semmens raises an interesting point here, which is whether New Zealand still sees itself as a western state..."

Define "western state". For you seems to be a synonym for the Anglo-American empire's NATO/ANZUS cold war alliances and a rag tag of petrified ex-Soviet satellites, because apparently Switzerland isn't "a western state". Chile is rapidly developing - pretty soon, it'll be as "western" as anyone else.

New Zealand is a country where all my life the public has been mildly nationalistic and anti-American and sought collective security through internationally mandated organisations like the UN. Yet this gneral world view is completely at odds with the political/military establishment, which is welded to the idea we are colonial client state in the Anglo-American empire. Our military and diplomatic corps in particular seem to still have a colonial cringe in the face of their foreign masters, having simply replaced their solar topees and Rule Britannia for cowboy hats and the Star Spangled banner.

Personally though I feel NZ has far more in common with the new democracies of South America like Chile than we do in a decaying and exhausted quai-police state like the United Kingdom. Chile is a lot more vibrant, a lot closer and has the same seasons, and is in the Pacific region, just for starters.  

by Richard on November 06, 2014
Richard

@Tom:

Chile is rapidly developing - pretty soon, it'll be as "western" as anyone else.

Also Chile is a western-European-language-speaking, former colony of a western European empire, governed by a dual-house parliamentary democracy with a president as executive/head-of-state. Which certainly sounds very "western".

Chilean culture even includes the idea of a Huaso --- you don't more "western" than that.

Surely, Wayne doesn't mean Chile isn't "western" because they are dagos?

by Wayne Mapp on November 06, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Tom,

No, I am not suggesting that Switzerland is not part of the west. But it is a special case in that it is a neutral state.

I personally don't think that New Zealand wants to be seen as being in the same grouping as South America, and neither do I think that most of New Zealand is of that view. It is a place we visit, but by and large young New Zealanders do not work there - language no doubt being a key reason.

As for the west's causes, well it was notable that Afghanistan included just about every single western state. It was a key marker of whether a nation thought of itself as part of the west or whether it did not. ISIS is not in the same bracket, and I imagine quite a few western nations will not participate.

New Zealand is doing so (at least under the current govt) because it is part of a smaller grouping of states that sit within a broader definition of the west - "Five Eyes" being a clue here.

But I also appreciate that there are a significant group of New Zealanders who are not of this view.

I would note that in the initial stages of Afghanistan, there was a huge majority of New Zealanders who supported military action. There weren't too many anti-Americans then. But the 10 to 20% who were of that view then were enough to blow up the Alliance Party.

However in South America even immediately after 9/11, I imagine most people would have opposed military deployment.

We have a different history to South America, and it is reflected in what we do in international affairs.

by Richard on November 06, 2014
Richard

@Wayne

However in South America even immediately after 9/11, I imagine most people would have opposed military deployment.

So did most people everywhere around the world: http://www.peace.ca/galluppollonterrorism.htm 

In most countries in this survey (Oct. 2001) 70-80% of the respondents favoured police action over military deployment as the response to 9/11. The only (out of the surveyed 67) countries where people favoured a military response were the US (54%), India (72%), and Israel (77%).

 

by Richard on November 06, 2014
Richard

out of the surveyed 67

Sorry, surveyed 37 countries.

by Richard on November 06, 2014
Richard

@Wayne

As for the west's causes, well it was notable that Afghanistan included just about every single western state. It was a key marker of whether a nation thought of itself as part of the west or whether it did not.

The actual invasion consisted only of the US and UK later supported by Australia and Canada (i.e. four of the five eyes).

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was formed later, under UN auspices, nominally as a security force to assist the establishment of the new Afghan interim government after the US had destroyed the Taleban government. Jordan sent more troops as part of ISAF than NZ did, does that mean Jordan is a more "western" nation than NZ? What about Mongolia?

by Wayne Mapp on November 06, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Richard,

Richard,

You may recall that Afghanistan was given about 4 weeks to extradite the terrorists, or start a credible process to do so. The Taliban govt said they would not extradite them, that Al Qaeda were guests who should be shown hospitality.

The poll would appear to have occurred when extradition was still seen as a credible possibility, hence the reason for the two alternatives in the key question.

It was the failure to extradite or co-operate that precipitated the military action. 

by Wayne Mapp on November 06, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Richard,

It is well known that NZ was also in there at the outset with the SAS on Tora Bora in November 2002. So I guess all "Five Eyes" were there at the initial stage. 

by Wayne Mapp on November 06, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Sorry, November 2001

by Richard on November 06, 2014
Richard

@Wayne

It was the failure to extradite or co-operate that precipitated the military action. 

So you think that Bolivia should invade the US?

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-09-07/news/sns-rt-us-bolivia-usabre88614o-20120907_1_president-evo-morales-extradition-coca-farmer

by Richard on November 06, 2014
Richard

Wayne:

It is well known that NZ was also in there at the outset with the SAS on Tora Bora in November 2001

That may be true but the Operation Concord deployment didn't officially begin until December 2001. So it is not like the government was making any earlier contributions as part of some great, public display of "western" unity. 

by Alex Coleman on November 06, 2014
Alex Coleman

Wayne.

I too would like a definition of 'western state' in the sense you are using it. Generally, I understand 'the west' as referring to liberal democracies with a respect for civil liberties, a belief that governments are legitimised by the consent of the governed, a respect for the rule of law,  and so on and so forth. 

Whether or not a country is in a formal military alliance, or joins in on a particular military adventure, doesn't, I think, have any bearing whatsoever on the membership of 'the west'. Western liberal democracies and and do disagree, after all. It's kind of the whole point that they be allowed to.

I don't think it is particualrly fair or honest to say that people with misgivings about joining in wars that they feel may conflict with western values, give up a western identity.

by Alex Coleman on November 06, 2014
Alex Coleman

And also Wayne, framing opponents as 'anti Americans' is also a fundamentally dishonest tactic. Please. This isn't parliament, we are citizens here who disagree. Try and behave accordingly.

by Lee Churchman on November 06, 2014
Lee Churchman

I would say that for 70 to 80% of New Zealand's population, we are clearly still a western state. This includes many of the new immigrants, who come here because they want to be part of the west.

The countries that most vociferously content that they are part of the "west" are those that have largely abandoned its culture and traditions whilst substituting for them cheap simulacra of those things. "Western values" are sustained only by generally ignored minorities in those countries. 

Both the left and right have abandoned commitment to objectivity and rationality. The left via identity politics and the right via Rovian politics. We live in a time when the Canadian government... the Canadian government... is muzzling Canadian scientists and requiring many to obtain political permission before they can share their results with the media.

The same people who go on about western values are those who lose no opportunity to sneer at those who attempt to uphold them as "elitists" whether the latter are scientists, professors or classical musicians. The Goths may go to war bearing stolen eagles, but they're still goths.

by Lee Churchman on November 06, 2014
Lee Churchman

Is anyone else offended by the outright misogynists and homophobes who populate the American right using the plight of women and homosexuals in the third world to browbeat the rest of us into supporting their toxic wars?

by Wayne Mapp on November 06, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Alex,

In not one of my posts have I used the term "anti- American." I have gone no further than saying that some New Zealanders would rather New Zealand identify in a less western way, but more like South American nations such as Chile. I know that Meteria is that space, she has said so.

Obviously Chile is democratic, believes in the rule of law, but it is not being usually identified with causes that most western nations consider that from time to time they have to be part of. But I do note Chile is a TPP negotiating party. That means something about how they see themselves, and Chile is less parochial than many South American nations.

All this does lead to a discussion of what "western" means. I noted that in 2009 President Obama used the term in his Inaugural address (I think it was). He was doing so because he wanted to convey the idea of a group of nation with similar values and who were frequently prepared to work together. In my view to be part of the west means more than being democratic and believing in the rule of law. It also means an international and liberal approach to trade and markets. It has has a sense of ensuring these values top some extent are internationalized. It also means acting in concert when these values are seriously attacked. Now that does not mean acting in lockstep.

I would actually argue that ISIL does not quite reach that level, which is why many western nations will not consider they have to do much, if anything at all. But in a broad sense Afghanistan did require a level of engagement. My evidence is that virtually every country which considered themselves as part of the west was there. But large regions of the world were not, including most of Africa, most of Latin America and most of Asia, and of course most of the former Soviet Union. But to make the point, Georgia was there. And typically those nations within regions that were not there, but which considered themselves to be closest to the west were often there. 

But this is a much bigger discussion than can be accommodated on a site like this.

by Alex Coleman on November 06, 2014
Alex Coleman

Lee, on a similar note, I just read this:

 

http://t.co/q4RdQYLiLc

The US is cutting it's funding of the group investigating Assad's war crimes to zero. Western values, huh.

by Alex Coleman on November 06, 2014
Alex Coleman

Wayne, thanks, this is the comment about 'anti american' I was responding to

"I would note that in the initial stages of Afghanistan, there was a huge majority of New Zealanders who supported military action. There weren't too many anti-Americans then."

We'll have to diasgree, I think about what 'western' means and who gets to be in the club. I find your version to be a bit too true scotsman, in that it seems to be saying that yu can;t be a true western liberal democracy unless you do x,y,and z. Some of those things come and go. The liberal trade qualification, for example, would suggest there were no true western countries for several decades after WW2 ;)


by Tim Watkin on November 06, 2014
Tim Watkin

This is a really interesting discussion thanks everyone. It's challenging to think about a word like 'western' which is so often used but seldom questioned.

I think of the West as stemming from Western Europe and more recently as those who were clearly on the side of US-led post-war capitalist doctrine as opposed to communist or socialist sates. Of course the Spanish colonisation of South America puts it in the 'western' sphere, which makes me think that more commonly the word West applies to what Belich as called the Anglo world.

But then, as some have written, there are non-Anglo countries and non-Western European countries who could tick most of the boxes. It's hard to be precise, but I'd observe that South America's trial of various kinds of socialism and nationalism and dictatorships have made it less part of that Western, Anglo, liberal capitalist, democratic tradition. Although the likes of Chile have moved strongly that way.

All that aside, I think Wayne is right that most New Zealanders see ourselves and our allies through the prism of our colonial and World War history, and so instinctively assume we side with US, Britain and the like.

Part of my point in this post was to reinforce that however National has nudged us back towards the US (following the relatively nuanced approach of Clark's the spoke strongly of independence but at the same time maintained Five Eyes and worked hard to improve relations with the US), Clark's decision to stay out of Iraq was a defining moment. And that's been reinforced by Key's decision this week.

What's intriguing to me is that while we are still back as unofficial allies of the US and partners with Australia (reasserting the politics of our history), we do also seem to be more in tune with the politics of our geography as well. As someone (Tom?) noted (and Wayne alluded to), we are more like Chile and other Pacific Rim countries in not being in lockstep with the US and full ally status as Australia is.

Where I part ways with Wayne is the sense that engagement in Afghanistan was necessary.

While, yes, many countries did participate and perhaps there was a sense that club membership required action, I said then and still believe the invasion was ill-judged. A people with little or no guilt were found guilty and punished by the court of war (in terms of holding anyone accountable for 9/11 and attempting to degrade Al Qaedait would have made at least as much sense to invade Saudi Arabia). Our commitment to the rule of law was actually undermined by what has gone on there (NZ included). And we – the West – got drawn into a calamitous loss of life that at worst simply bred and displaced more terrorism and at best poured many millions into an impoverished country for the sake of the diplomatic equivalent of a sugar high that is likely to have very impact on the long-term history of the nation and did nothing to resolve the underlying tensions in the region.

by Tim Watkin on November 06, 2014
Tim Watkin

Tom, while we might have some suspicion around how Key would be poll-led on this, I think we have to be careful not to make pronouncements based on what the courts would say is guilt in other crimes not this one. I do believe he considers this is a heavy decision for him and could be one he makes with more consideration and less poll-reaction that many others. But neither of us know for sure.

As for the 'white man's burden'. Well, maybe. But this is no longer a colonial world but a globalised one. I-S is targetting 'westerners', whatever that means. While it is small scale at this stage, what happens in the Middle East no longer necessarily remains in the Middle East. And anyway, at what point to we say 'not our problem' and then at what point 'something wicked this way comes and we must stand against it'.

I'm not necessarily even saying a stand should be militaristic or that our spying obligations are wise or you're wrong to say this Middle Eastern/Islamic problem demands a solution born of the same soil... but do you really want to say that whatever happens in another part of the world is of no importance to a small isolated island nation? Are we to turn our eyes from any evil and act like the three monkeys?

Or are all people our neighbours?

by Wayne Mapp on November 07, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Tim,

My point about Afghanistan is that the various nations thought they had to be involved irrespective of their own misgivings (and there were plenty). It was one of those occasions where nations were being judged by their peers. If you were in, you were part of the "team", if you were not, then well you were not. 

And I would note that expectation only applied to some nations of the world. Whole regions (South America for instance) were exempted from the expectation.

But I also note that a number of countries (Jordan, Georgia, Malaysia, Singapore) were making sure they would get some sort of additional sat us by contributing.

It is a bit like Ukraine's ill judged moves to join NATO and the EU. They were saying we don't identify with Russia, we are part of the West. But that also lead to the civil war since there not a unifying national consensus on that issue. In fact the complete opposite.

 

 

by Tom Semmens on November 07, 2014
Tom Semmens

"...but do you really want to say that whatever happens in another part of the world is of no importance to a small isolated island nation? Are we to turn our eyes from any evil and act like the three monkeys?

Sure, act as an international citizen when the moral imperative is just and the mandate from the UN is clear. Like, say, Hitler, or more topically Rwanda - where no one did anything, presumably because they had no oil. But the Middle East? We have a clear moral mandate there?

The radicalisation of the Arab world lies largely in the betrayal of the West of the promises it made as far back as Lawrence of Arabia in the Great War, the cavalier post WW1 division of the middle east by the Sykes–Picot Agreement and the constant post-1948 canker that is the the uncritical support for Israel and the failure to meaningfully address the plight of the Palestinian people. Further afield, the disgraceful CIA coup in Iran in 1953 that saw the Pahlavi dynasty foisted on the Iranian people and forty years of unrelenting hostility between the US and the Islamic theocracy has poisoned relations with the Persians as well. The Taliban were created by the USA as a proxy to fight the USSR, and The Saudi Wahhabists are fanatics who fund extremists everywhere yet are meant to be our allies. Iraq was illegally invaded in the first naked war of aggression since the Nuremburg trials, a war crime for which that generation of leadership in the USA (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld etc) remain unpunished. The result of that was an explosion of warlordism across the levant as brutal fundamentalist theocrats offered an alternative to brutal secular authoritarians. Where it suits, "the West" supports brutal secular authoritarians (Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Khazakstan) and where it doesn't suit it supports brutal fundamentalist theocrats (Saudi Arabia) - except for Iran, a brutal fundamentalist theocracy the west opposes.

Generally speaking, the policy aim appears to be to keep useful regimes in power regardless of how brutal they are and perpetual war via warlordism when they outlive their usefulness, in order to keep the Arab peoples from uniting against Israel or even simply controlling their own destiny. It is, in other words, a policy of maintaining constant misery and death and murder and extremism and perpetual wa or repressionr, and I say we have a moral justification in NOT being any part of the whole disgraceful exercise anymore.

The above makes a mockery of any presumed moral right to act against evil in the evil in the middle east. Whose evil? Theirs? Ours (as in "ours" = "The West")? If we are part of the West, given the evils we've perpetrated against whole peoples in the middle east, what moral authority do we have to judge anyone or anything there anymore? We've created the monsters. If it were the case we have a clear moral mandate, we'd start by sending the SAS to snatch Dick Cheney from his home and delivering him to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague. Fat chance of that.

by Richard Aston on November 07, 2014
Richard Aston

Tom thanks for your take on the geopolitics , its good to hold in mind the wider picture with its deeper threads. George Friedman's book  "America's Secret War" details those geopolitics - and monster creation - in fine detail. 

"We've created the monsters", I fully agree and it seems we continue to do so. Why?

 

by Lee Churchman on November 07, 2014
Lee Churchman

In my view to be part of the west means more than being democratic and believing in the rule of law. It also means an international and liberal approach to trade and markets.

Ha Joon Chang takes great delight in pointing out that western countries have only believed in a liberal approach to trade and markets when it suited them. They've been colonialist, protectionist and so on. I guess you could call the opium wars a stand for free trade...

by Anne on November 07, 2014
Anne

<blockquote>Actually, the good news is that despite his best attempts, Curia would have been telling the government that not even John Key could sell this imperial adventure to the New Zealand public. The only thing keeping us independent is the common sense of the people, not our Quisling political establishment which is welded to a narrative of NZ as a loyal client state to whichever agent of western imperialism is the strongest just now.</blockquote>

Oh, well said Tom Semmens.

At best, the current decision is a pragmatic one. At worst, it is politically motivated pandering to public opinion.

One can be sure Curia - guided by National Party pollster, David Farrar - was polling 24/7 in recent weeks to ascertain that public opinion. One can also be sure that at some point down the track (once Farrar has judged the public mood as successfully susceptible to the on-going fear-mongering) we will learn the SAS and related Defence personnel are to be sent into the war zone for an indeterminate period of time.



by Peggy Klimenko on November 07, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

@ Wayne: "... Afghanistan was given about 4 weeks to extradite the terrorists, or start a credible process to do so. The Taliban govt said they would not extradite them, that Al Qaeda were guests who should be shown hospitality..... It was the failure to extradite or co-operate that precipitated the military action."

The Taliban did offer to hand over bin Laden, although they wanted to see the evidence of his involvement in 9/11 before they did so; quite Western of them, really.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/14/afghanistan.terrorism5

"It is well known that NZ was also in there at the outset with the SAS on Tora Bora in November 2001. So I guess all "Five Eyes" were there at the initial stage."

New Zealand SAS forces didn't arrive in Afghanistan until about 17 December, by which time bin Laden had escaped, probably to Pakistan, and the battle of Tora Bora was effectively over.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-14190032

As with the disastrous Iraq invasion, the adventure in Afghanistan didn't reflect well on the participants. Far too many lives were lost to no purpose.

Characterising as non-Western or anti-American, those with dissenting opinions doesn't help to further debate, because the chance to engage with heterodox perspectives is missed. People so characterised are forced into denial or defence, and the arguments are lost in the noise.

@ Tim Watkins: " South America's trial of various kinds of socialism and nationalism and dictatorships have made it less part of that Western, Anglo, liberal capitalist, democratic tradition. Although the likes of Chile have moved strongly that way."

We ought not to forget the CIA's role in forcing political systems of various sorts on many of those South American countries over the last 60-odd years. Small wonder that there's little enthusiasm south of the border for joining in with Uncle Sam's crusades in the Middle East.

@ Lee Churchman: "Is anyone else offended by the outright misogynists and homophobes who populate the American right using the plight of women and homosexuals in the third world to browbeat the rest of us into supporting their toxic wars?"

Count me in! The hypocrisy of such people is breathtaking. And I agree with everything else you say in your various comments here.

Thanks, Tom Semmens. I also agree with everything you say.

If we are, as we like to tell ourselves and other polities, a small country with an independent voice, that voice must now be raised against any further Western involvement in the god-awful mess that Western intervention over the centuries has left in the Middle East. It's late in the day for this stance, but better now than yet another well-intentioned but misguided attempt at fixing past cock-ups. The West either fails to see its own role in the root causes of the current conflict, or wilfully ignores it. Either way, Western intervention simply exacerbates the problems.

This isn't a callous "not our problem, let 'em stew in their own juice" stance on the part of those of us pleading for non-intervention. It's recognition that we can't fix anything, however much we might wish to; we can't stop innocent deaths. In fact, our involvement would without doubt add to those deaths; the history of the last 60-odd years should have made that obvious to everyone.

by Lee Churchman on November 07, 2014
Lee Churchman

I think of the West as stemming from Western Europe and more recently as those who were clearly on the side of US-led post-war capitalist doctrine as opposed to communist or socialist sates. Of course the Spanish colonisation of South America puts it in the 'western' sphere, which makes me think that more commonly the word West applies to what Belich as called the Anglo world.

It's not clear that you are using the term in anything other than a geographic or ethnic sense. The politics of the Anglo countries post-war have little in common with current politics – what we have now is much narrower and almost exclusively managerial, whereas the marketplace of ideas in the postwar Anglo countries was much more intellectually expansive and optimistic. The pressure of the Cold War enabled the United States to put a person on the moon in just over 8 years. Now they no longer have the capability for human spaceflight, and it's unclear whether they will ever get it back. Even if they do, it may well end up being another Space Shuttle: an appallingly designed deathtrap that they flew for 20 years. 

by Tom Semmens on November 08, 2014
Tom Semmens

@Tim Watkin - "Tom, while we might have some suspicion around how Key would be poll-led on this, I think we have to be careful not to make pronouncements based on what the courts would say is guilt in other crimes not this one."

May I direct you to today's piece from John Armstrong, the finest horse racing correspondent of his generation, in this mornings Herald:

"...National's private polling would have produced similar results, and Key is nothing if not poll-driven, so his Government's contribution to the battle against Isis is very much on the moderate end of things..."

Armstrong knows all the trainers and goes to all the race meetings, so I think we may take it as read that Key has strenuously tried to scaremonger us into a bigger contribution only to discover the public were not buying!

by Tim Watkin on November 08, 2014
Tim Watkin

Tom, John's words do strengthen those suspicions and if he knows about the polling as fact then of course he can report that. But, with respect, you don't know that as fact and don't have John's access, so I'd still make the same point.

As for your historical analysis, I agree with much of what you say. But just because intervention in the past was not well intentioned and created monsters, does that mean we never intervene ever again? I'm not necessarily arguing for intervention, but just on the principle behind what you say.

And what would a moral right look like? Hitler's too easy a historical point to score. That was a clear evil to be fought. But is your threshold of intervention that high? And is I-S to be ignored just because of past failures?

I guess part of my point is that it's easy to critique history – I do it myself – but if you are a politician having to make a call, on what grounds do you make it? Where's your line in the sand?

 

by Tim Watkin on November 08, 2014
Tim Watkin

Wayne, that's fascinating. I take your point about being part of the team and the importance of that in global diplomacy and establishing NZ's reputation, but it does rather undermine the idea of an independent foreign policy. I remember Bush saying 'you're with us or against us' and obviously that meant a lot to many countries. But it doesn't make it right.

Do we just do as a our peers do? Or as they desire us to do? Does a good friend not some times talk to the crowd and say 'hey this is only going to make things worse' and 'this is the wrong target' and 'what about the innocents? We're so upset about our innocents dying, does it make sense to kill another country's innocents in response?'

by DeepRed on November 08, 2014
DeepRed

"Is anyone else offended by the outright misogynists and homophobes who populate the American right using the plight of women and homosexuals in the third world to browbeat the rest of us into supporting their toxic wars?"

Yes, I find the whole 'no true Scotsman' card rather tiresome. The usual suspects are quite happy to whinge about the 'she-Mafia' and the 'gay Mafia', but they'll suddenly stick up for women and gays if they're being stoned or fired at by jihadists or what-have-you.

by DeepRed on November 08, 2014
DeepRed

To add: just as no religion or culture has a monopoly on terrorism, no religion or culture has a monopoly on misogyny and homophobia.

by Lee Churchman on November 08, 2014
Lee Churchman

But just because intervention in the past was not well intentioned and created monsters, does that mean we never intervene ever again?

It's not the intervention so much as who's doing it that is the cause of doubts.

by Katharine Moody on November 08, 2014
Katharine Moody

I remember Bush saying 'you're with us or against us'

Tim, you've made a common mistake in this regard - what Bush actually said was:

"Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpPABLW6F_A

A very deliberately written accusation - I assume to imply in US eyes there was no option for neutrality. If not "with them" you were an enemy, not just a bystander. 

by Peggy Klimenko on November 09, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

@ Tim Watkin: "Does a good friend not some times talk to the crowd and say 'hey this is only going to make things worse' and 'this is the wrong target' and 'what about the innocents?"

Many of us would hope so; and if this country remains a "very, very, very good friend" of the US, as George W Bush described us, then I see it as something the PM could say, because "friendship" allows such things to be said. I'm not so sure that an ally (such as Australia) could get away with it; a client state certainly couldn't.

But just because intervention in the past was not well intentioned and created monsters, does that mean we never intervene ever again?

In the present case, the monsters created by the last round of ill-advised intervention are demonstrably very much alive and well; moreover, we can't be sure that at least some of them aren't in "our" camp.

I think it may have been Tom Semmens who observed that we've got to stop acting like imperialists or colonisers. Not only are we not obliged to intervene in other nations' squabbles, in this case, we're obliged not to, on account of the current conflict being to a large extent a direct consequence of the disastrous invasion of Iraq. We can't fix it.

I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say "never again". But the next time we're asked for help, our government needs to be very sure that it gets disinterested and cool-headed advice, enabling it to understand the subtleties of the situation, so that it can determine whether the nature of the assistance asked for will actually do the job expected of it. No more Afghanistans, please.

by Tim Watkin on November 10, 2014
Tim Watkin

Katherine, he said both. For example: here.

But I'm not sure what point you're making, as the two wordings make the same point about there being no room for neutrality. There was clearly immense international pressure at the time.

Peggy, my point is that you can potentially intervene or take a stand against oppressors even if you have a history of oppression yourself and without being colonial about it. Tom mentioned Rwanda. But historical comparisons with that or Afghanistan or wherever are dangerous – you end up fighting the last war. What is the threat and horror we face now? And what do we do about it? Or do we do nothing even as I-S seeks to bring the fight to the West, as it likes to say?

by Peggy Klimenko on November 10, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

Tim: "....you can potentially intervene or take a stand against oppressors even if you have a history of oppression yourself and without being colonial about it."

True, I think that it probably helps, though, not to have been previously involved as an oppressor - or imperialist - in the country or area where intervention is contemplated. And especially not to have had a recent history of oppression. Neither of these conditions applies to the West with regard to Iraq, unfortunately.

I agree about Rwanda; the UN could have mandated intervention there, and many lives could have been saved. Yet NZ was unable to persuade the other members of the UNSC to act. I'm not particularly optimistic about our ability to be heard this time around either.

"What is the threat and horror we face now? And what do we do about it?"

To both questions: I don't know. And I doubt that anyone else does either. But, given that the rise of IS is a direct consequence of George W's disastrous ego-trip in Iraq, it seems plain loony to me that the US would contemplate further intervention of any sort, still less dragging in other nations such as ours to share the load. What will arise as a result in a few years time as a result?

"Or do we do nothing even as I-S seeks to bring the fight to the West, as it likes to say?"

Bringing the fight to the West: well, wannabe Western jihadists are saying that. But not Baghdadi himself: his aims are much more long-term. Have a look at this: http://www.rightsidenews.com/2014091434843/world/terrorism/understanding...

However, Baghdadi's ambitions notwithstanding, we're yet to see whether IS can hold onto the territory it currently has; and it's unlikely to manage even that unless it has the support of the local populace. Doing nothing may well be the least worst option in the short run, and probably even the long run.

by Tim Watkin on November 12, 2014
Tim Watkin

Peggy, it's a perfectly rational argument you make, but you have imagine making it as US President or Secretary of State to understand the political reality they operate in. Perhaps doing nothing is the least worst option, but then you have to accept that people will die who you could have saved. Because there's no doubt some lives have been saved by Western intervention.

As for knowing the threat, well, there are whole departments whose job it is to advise. You'd assume that those in power then want to act on that advice. It's not that they don't have information, it's how they interpret it. If I'm President or Sec of State, presumably I'd be telling my people that 'I don't know' isn't good enough and don't just come to me asking questions about what will arise in a few years time; we need to know so that we can choose to act or not now. They don't have the luxury we have on the sidelines as there are people like you and me critiquing their decisions constantly.

Where I disagree with you is that just because Bush got it wrong it's loony to consider further intervention. Each case on its merits. Certainly be informed by past failings, but don't be paralysed because of someone else's mistakes.

Ultimately, there are only ever lesser evils in these situations.

by Peggy Klimenko on November 14, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

@ Tim: "Where I disagree with you is that just because Bush got it wrong it's loony to consider further intervention. Each case on its merits. Certainly be informed by past failings, but don't be paralysed because of someone else's mistakes."

Indeed; we'll just have to disagree. Unfortunately, though, these cases aren't separate; the current conflict is a direct consequence of the Iraq invasion. If the West is thoroughly spooked by IS, what new monster will arise as a result of further intervention?

In any event, while Baghdadi is still talking about marching to Rome, talk is cheap, and he's yet to demonstrate that IS can hold onto the territory it's seized thus far.

http://pando.com/2014/11/10/the-war-nerd-farewell-islamic-state-we-hardly-knew-ye/

Absent intervention, IS will likely collapse; but if the West interferes, it will likely further destabilise the area, and strengthen IS. Thus the West would bring about the very thing it intervened to prevent.

 

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