Analysis: NZ POLITICS DAILY: Is NZ being conned into war in Iraq?
Going to war normally involves a fair amount of public manipulation. New Zealand’s leading war correspondent, Jon Stephenson has elaborated on this manipulation, in terms of the Government’s decision to go back into Iraq: ‘Wars are built on lies. You can’t have a war without lies – precisely because telling the public the truth isn’t likely to help you build the case when that war is unpalatable’. He says that ‘the public are being conned again’ about going into a war on false pretences. You can listen to Sean Plunket’s very interesting 10-minute Interview with Jon Stephenson. For TVNZ’s report on the interview, see: NZ role in ISIS fight will increase risk of attacks at home – Kiwi war correspondent.
Stephenson’s original landmark Metro magazine feature on the lies of New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan war crimes can also be read – see: Eyes Wide Shut: The Government’s Guilty Secrets in Afghanistan.
The notion that lies and manipulation are central to defence and foreign policy is explained by Chris Trotter in his latest blog post, We Can’t Handle The Truth! Democratic Competency And Elite Opinion.
If this is the case, then the public would be wise to be sceptical or wary about politicians trying to manipulate them about the global fight against ISIS. Below are the top eight potential manipulations to watch out for.
Con #1: NZ is going into Iraq for humanitarian reasons
It used to be the mainstay of leftwing politicians to justify military interventions in sovereign countries on the basis of ‘humanitarian’ purposes. Under Helen Clark, for instance, New Zealand sent troops as part of the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. These days politicians of all ideological stripes use such ‘liberal’ leverage to pursue invasions. John Key most recently said that troop deployments were all about standing up for the oppressed and downtrodden, and he expressed regret that the political left no longer seemed to care about such international humanitarian goals.
Chris Trotter notes that the humanitarian rhetoric from Key is remarkably similar to that spoken by Norm Kirk in the 1970s, although with some important differences – see: Good Samaritans?
Furthermore, if the Government – and the West at large – are really concerned about flagrant human rights abuses and atrocities in the Middle East, it would be getting involved in other countries. The fact that it is not suggests, not just hypocrisy or inconsistency, but it betrays the notion that humanitarian goals are what are really driving the West’s latest intervention in the Middle East.
Dave Armstrong, puts it like this: ‘So by all means take action against Isis – once you've openly condemned Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and the US for their brutal actions in the Middle East, threatened Egypt with a trade boycott, and offered military assistance to Palestine to help it protect itself from Israeli attack’ – see: Doing our bit? But first we have to identify the bad guys.
It seems more likely that New Zealand’s geo-political and economic interests are what really lies behind the need to intervene again. In fact the Prime Minister was somewhat more honest when he explained New Zealand’s necessary involvement as being ‘the price’ of belonging to ‘the club’ of Western allies.
So instead of being about the pursuit of altruistic goals, NZ troop deployments are more about their symbolic importance of providing greater political legitimacy to actions of Western allies. Brent Edwards says: ‘In the end, whether this country sends a token force of up to 100 soldiers to Iraq will make not the slightest difference to the battle against IS. Its importance will be largely symbolic by adding another flag to the coalition of countries sending troops to Iraq’ – see: Costs of fighting to stay in club.
International relations expert Paul Buchanan has also explained how New Zealand is absolutely beholden to intervene due to its alignments with its ‘primary diplomatic and trading partners’ – see: To the point on NZ and IS. In terms of defence alliances, Buchanan says: After the signing of the Wellington and Washington security agreements, NZ became a first tier security partner of the US, and as is known, it is an integral member of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network. It therefore cannot renege on its security alliance commitments without a serious loss of credibility and trust from the countries upon which it is most dependent for its own security’.
Buchanan also points to the fact that ‘most of New Zealand’s primary diplomatic and trading partners, including those in the Middle East, are involved in the anti-IS coalition’.
This ‘economic rationale’ is not surprising, according to Martin van Beynen, writing in his column, Doing our bit for peace and the club: ‘Some will profess shock and horror that a country should join the battle over mere economic interests but they seem to me to be a very good reason for helping the effort to neutralise a major threat to the powder keg that is the Middle East. Helping to support the security of a region of the world that holds resources almost essential to our way of life is quite a good reason for committing a military contingent to the fray’.
Con #2: ISIS is uniquely barbaric, requiring a unique response
Much of the clamour to return to Iraq is in reaction to the extreme brutality displayed by ISIS. The beheadings and other barbaric acts have given Western nations – and New Zealand politicians –greater ability to argue that there’s a special reason for joining the war.
For the strongest refutation of this, see terrorism and conflict expert Richard Jackson’s opinion piece, IS: how should world respond? In this, Jackson outlines how extreme abuse of humans happens in numerous traditional and contemporary conflicts, and that ‘Sadly, this atrocity, and those previously committed by IS, are actually fairly banal in the history of warfare’.
Keeping the ISIS beheadings in perspective is also encouraged by Chris Trotter in his blog post, Responsibility To Protect: But who? And from what? He argues that ISIS ‘has not (to date) engaged in the indiscriminate mass slaughter of entire populations’. Furthermore, Trotter says that we should keep in mind the atrocities committed by the US in the country: ‘Those who find themselves outraged and repulsed by IS propaganda videos showing prisoners being beheaded or burned alive should, perhaps, ask themselves if they experienced similar emotions back in March 2003 when the US media was gleefully beaming-out images of Baghdad aflame’.
Con #3: NZ and the West’s ‘war on terror’ can win in Iraq
The ideas of helping defeat ISIS and the establishment of a democratic and safe Iraq are at the forefront of the stated goals of a New Zealand intervention. Yet the complexities of the situation in both the Middle East and Iraq make this goal difficult to accept as realistic. For a very strong argument about the futility of this approach, see Danyl Mclauchlan’s blog post, Helping Iraq.
In fact, it seems that the situation is quite possibly going to be made worse, as a result of New Zealand and the West’s involvement. This is also a point made by Andrea Vance in her opinion piece, Think twice before joining new Iraq war. Here’s her main point: ‘hawkish cliches and scare-mongering do not answer the obvious question: Will military intervention fix it? History says it will create an even bigger mess’. She also points out that ‘Iraq is deeply fractured along sectarian lines – a direct consequence of the 2003 US-led invasion. It's difficult to fathom how another campaign will solve entrenched problems’.
New Zealand’s intervention could also make the situation worse because, according to Michael Timmins, ‘we are committing to a conflict that undermines both the rule of law and our own commitments when we ran for the Security Council’ – see: Our Independent Foreign Policy.
There is a further related ‘con’ – that New Zealand will be helping the ‘good guys’ of the Iraqi Government. The dubious nature of this is pointed out by blogger No Right Turn, who says that the Government’s ‘best outcome appears to be supporting one group of monsters against another. This is what he wants kiwi troops (and civilians, because by waging war he risks all our lives) to die for: for Iraq's corrupt, torturing government, who are busy waging their own sectarian cleansing campaigns against Sunnis’ – see: A war without a plan.
For more about how corrupt and exclusionary the current Iraq government is, see Gordon Campbell’s blog post from last year, On the tokenism of New Zealand‘s role against Islamic State, and Scott Hamilton’s For and against Islamism: the West's hypocritical war in Iraq.
Con #4: NZ has a plan and an ‘exit strategy’
After many months of debate and discussion – essentially softening up the public on the need to send troops – the Government is still very weak on what a mission to Iraq would hope to achieve. John Key and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee have had little to say about the direction of the campaign in Iraq, to say nothing of an ‘exit plan’. As blogger No Right Turn says, it appears to be A war without a plan.
Does it even make sense to go into Iraq instead of another country to fight against ISIS? According to Gordon Campbell it’s a strange decision because there are actually six regional forces fighting ISIS, of which the Iraq army has been the least effective – see: On the reluctance to support the Kurds against Islamic State.
The failure of the Government to outline a coherent plan for intervening in Iraq is possibly shown in a recent poll showing major opposition – see Patrick Gower’s Poll: NZers divided over IS military action.
Con #5: There are no alternatives to military intervention
‘Doing nothing is not an option’ – that’s the dubious statement put forward for going back into Iraq. But others have drawn attention to alternative methods of combating ISIS. For instance, Kerre McIvor says it’s more important to stop the funding of ISIS: ‘I have no problem in supporting action against Isis. The issue is what form that action takes… There needs to be a multi-pronged attack. Cutting off the funding for the terrorist group should be the priority. Wealthy individuals in Qatar and Saudi Arabia are funnelling huge amounts of money into Isis and they need to be stopped’ – see: We must help - but on our terms.
Others argue for funds and humanitarian resources to be focused on the victims. The Standard blog site says: ‘Far better to provide humanitarian aid to those suffering, support diplomatic efforts, and leave the war to those who started this mess – and can take responsibility for their actions’ – see: Better to Jaw Jaw than War War.
See also, Brian Rudman’s column, Peacekeeping UN, not warlike US, is our club, for some alternatives.
But perhaps the strongest critique of the Government’s approach is that it rules out other options for fighting ISIS – avenues that are potentially much more effective. For example, Gordon Campbell points out that it is actually the ‘the Kurdish organisations who are doing the bulk of the actual, effective fighting on the ground against Islamic State’, yet New Zealand (and the West) appear to be marginalising this organisation, and preventing it from gaining the necessary resources to beat ISIS – see: On the government’s reluctance to treat the enemies of Islamic State as its friends.
Con #6: Australia and NZ could play a joint ANZAC role
This year New Zealand and Australia are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the invasion of Gallipoli, which in the Government’s eyes provides a good opportunity for a ‘symbolic’ joint force operation in Iraq. Since announcing that possibility last year, the Government has gone quiet on the option, perhaps realising the negative symbolism of once again following the major powers into a questionable military intervention.
Furthermore, it’s become apparent that an ANZAC force in Iraq would have all sorts of problems. An ODT editorial this week, explained: ‘New Zealand will be aware, as well, that Australia, our senior likely partner in Iraq, could have a different agenda. Because Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is fighting for his political life, a foreign distraction could be useful’ – see: Treading a delicate line. Essentially, New Zealand troops under Australian command might more quickly descend into combat roles.
In terms of using the Gallipoli experience to rally for another war, Brian Rudman recommends that we take the opposition lesson, saying that ‘the bloody lesson of Gallipoli is not to get involved in other people's wars’ – see: Remember John – we could lose again.
Con #7: NZ troops will be safely ‘behind the wire’
The Government has pushed the line that New Zealand troops in Iraq would only play a ‘non-combat’ role. The strategy of providing only ‘trainers’ to Iraq is, no doubt, a useful compromise in which the Government can assuage its international allies that it is making a contribution, while satisfying the domestic interests that are reluctant to see a full-scale military intervention by New Zealand soldiers. The option follows on from similarly politically successful ‘non-combat’ dispatchments to Iraq and Afghanistan last decade.
But is it really ever possible to send troops to war zones in a non-combat role? There is plenty of scepticism about the possibility of keeping soldiers out of combat roles, especially due to the inevitable attacks on the military trainers. And as Gordon Campbell has pointed out, the ‘Canadian special forces in Iraq operate with a similar theoretical distinction’, but have been drawn into conflict too – see: On the reluctance to support the Kurds against Islamic State.
See also No Right Turn’s "Behind the wire", which argues that the likely placement of NZ troops into the dangerous Camp Taji, shows that ‘this is not a safe deployment. The lives of those soldiers will be at risk, and Key is lying about it’.
Con #8: Is the Opposition conning us too?
There is no bipartisan agreement about sending troops to Iraq, with the Labour Party professing dissent. But what is Labour proposing to do about the situation?
Labour’s response to Government plans has been largely spearheaded by David Shearer – see his original opposition in this opinion piece: Case for military action has not been made.
Shearer, who spent two years working for the UN in Baghdad, has continued to provide useful critiques of the plans to go into Iraq – see: 'Smashing' IS won't solve Iraq's problems Labour says. At the same time he says that Labour is ‘open to other forms of assistance’.
One of the main avenues of intervention that Labour supports is airstrikes, with New Zealand contributing to the intelligence for the targeting of the bombing. One angry reaction to this comes in the form of No Right Turn’s blog post, Fuck Andrew Little. He explains that ‘there are serious questions as to whether providing targeting information to allow people to be killed is consistent with the BORA's affirmation of the right to life’.
Gordon Campbell has also written at length about Labour’s stance, and the logical conclusions of it – see: On Labour’s latest stance on Iraq. Campbell argues that Labour leader Andrew Little is – perhaps unwittingly – helping make the case for sending the SAS to Iraq.
For such reasons, blogger Martyn Bradbury asks: How different is Labour’s re-invasion of Iraq from National’s re-invasion of Iraq?
In contrast, this week’s Otago Daily Times editorial on the subject salutes Little and Labour for having ‘steered a smart line on the issue’ – see: Treading a delicate line.
And for a conservative critique of Labour’s stance, see Newstalk ZB’s Tim Fookes’ Labour Wrong on ISIS. He argues that ‘Labour is simply scaremongering because they're in opposition and they feel they simply need to oppose’, which he says is ‘hugely irresponsible’.
Finally, for an idea of how cartoonists are portraying the issues, see my blog post, Cartoons about NZ military intervention in Iraq & the Middle East.