Deploying to Iraq: NZ & the nouveau (Facebook) isolationism


OK, so declarations straight up. I agree with our deployment to Iraq. There is a massive humanitarian crisis that has been created byIslamic State, known in the Arab world, and France asDAISH,with the internal displacement of up to two million people, includingtherapid depopulation of Iraqi minorities. While I don’t think the ultimate solution to DAISH is Western military intervention, we have an opportunity to answer an Iraqi request to help Iraqis try and protect their own populations and, perhaps, inunderminingthe territorial gainsof DAISH. We are contributing the barest minimum we can decently do to maintain our international standingamongthe other participatingnationsthat comprise most of our major security and trading partners. I make no pretensions at being an international relations expert, or particularly knowledgeable about New Zealand politics, let alone the quagmire known as Iraq. I have read as widely as I can, and try and make sure i am reasonably informed.

But I am fascinatedas to why so many New Zealandersare opposed to deployment in Iraq to assist Iraqi forces to fightDAISH. Actually, at one levelI’m not surprised by some of theopposition. So much death, misery and suffering has happened in the Middle East for so long, that I can understand a level of ‘give-a-damn’ fatigue. I can also understand those who oppose deployment on the grounds that we shouldn’t be aiming to help the weak Iraqi government; we should be helping some other proxy like the Kurds. After all, lots of otherWestern fighters are heading to help them.

I also have a certain level of sympathy for those who ask about other conflicts closer to home.What about West Papua, and the massacres and abuses beingcarried out by Indonesian troops?What about poverty in our own country? We need to look after our own people. I could probably agree with all those statements. There is a pretty good argument, for example, to be made that New Zealand isnot doing all it canto assist the appalling abuses in West Papua.But these statements don’t constitute an argument not to go.

But these are argumentsforother things, but notagainstdeployment in Iraq. We can build really good arguments off the back of those statements. But they are just not effective as arguments against deployment. And they can set up false dilemmas:by saying ‘there is poverty in NZtherefore we should not deploy in Iraq’ the speaker is suggesting ‘if you choose to deploy in Iraq you reject helping the poor in NZ’. This is not self-evident.

Then there are other arguments that are similarly uncompelling…Iraq is a basket case. This is 2003 all over again.We are just going in as US lapdogs to protect the US’s oil interests.We can argue endlessly about the efficacy or otherwise of the US’s intervention in Iraq, and much of the time the US won’t look particularly great. But I just fail to see how arguments against the US and US foreign policy make any fundamental difference to our decision to go in this particular situation. And merely saying “We are the lap dog of the oil-hungry US” doesn’t cut it as an argument. Not only is this anover-simplifications, it is a deflection. A straw man.I might get sucked intodebating whether or not Iraq really is a basket-case, or whether we really are the lapdog of the oil-maniacal US. I am not, however, any clearer as to whether we should deploy or not. Then what about the argument that says ‘We didn’t intervene in [name appalling tragedy, for example Rwanda, West Papua] so why should we intervene here? To borrow the words ofTerry Nardin:

It makes little sense to argue that because a state has failed to rescue the victims of violence in one situation it should refrain from doing so in another

Perhaps the most usefularea in the debate I’ve seen has been about the importance of our international relationships. Of course, the relationship with the US before and after deployment is an important factor to consider indeciding to go. John Keysaidengaging in the campaign against DAISH was (as he charmingly put it) ‘the price of the club’, namely, theFive Eyes agreement.The nature of our relationship with the member countries in that agreement is at thecore of the decision to go.

So I have been interested to see a degree of nouveau isolationism, in severalFacebook posts I’ve seen. Many people seem to think our international relationships are like jumpers we can strip off on a hot day; there is no cost for dropping the jumper back on the woolly pile and presumably we can just put them back on when the cold wind starts to bite. It is impossible to tell how widespread this attitude is. One response to my own posts on this issue passionately and eloquently sums up a degree ofthis thinking:

This is not our circus, and most definitely not our monkeys! If Key, and anyone else wants to go play soldier, then go yourselves, and pay for it yourselves! We have enough problems here that need fixing, and the middle east needs to puton it’s big boy pants and sort it’s own shit out, or this will happen over and over for the rest of time. We’ve got involved in too many foreign wars that have had nothing to do with us, and gained nothing from the experience, except a lot of dead soldiers. But go on with your jolly-ho warmongering, and try not to vomit when the coffins come back.

Isolationism and self-interest has also been reflected by some influential M?ori commentators, as wasdemonstratedon Waitangi Day. The Army, of course, is in the eye of many Maori, something of a Maori institution,with 22%of its members being Maori.

Mr Key, speaking off the cuff, had addressed the issue of Iraq after earlier speakers criticised him for considering sending New Zealand personnel to help with training against Isis (Islamic State). They included Maori Council head Maanu Paul, who said he was concerned Mr Key was putting Maori at risk “as you participate in the global problems and want to be a ‘family’ with the United States and England”.

When Maori party Co-leader Te Ururoa Flavellspoke in Parliamentagainst deployment, he used most of the arguments mentioned thus far. According to Flavell, we are making ourselves a target, not only the deployed soldiers, but all of us in NZ: ‘we are raising our heads above the parapet’. He also surmised that ‘all that will happen is that everyone packs up and walls away.’ In addition, we have much to contribute, and a fine reputation, in regard to humanitarian crises, but we should look first closer to home, to West Papua. There was very little by way of graspable argument in this was a series of positions, that were deflections away from actual argument.

So, yes, sometimes the isolationism springs from a sincere belief that we need to act to assist countries closer to home, and more aligned with our sphere of influence. I accept that. And I also accept that we are inconsistent with whom we help whom we don’t. In the case of Iraq we have had a direct request from the democratically legitimate Iraqi government. Iraq is able,under Article 51 of the UN Charterto request assistance in matters of self defence, even collective self defence, without seeking permission from the security council. New Zealand may there provide assistance in the fight against DAISH. If we have the legal opportunities I would absolutely support our ‘getting some guts’ intervention in places closer to home.

In short…if we expect to receive a degree of protection from other countries, we must participate as best we can in world affairs where appropriate and where we have the legal pathway to do so. If we expect to benefit from, and contribute to, trade it is also a good idea tosustain good international relationships. If we expect to be able to challenge other countries on their human rights record or climate action record or whatever else, we have to participate in international affairs.

It surprises me how the debate I have been part of in social media seems to ignore how important our international relations are and how difficult they are to create and sustain. We learned harsh lessons from ourlast chairing of the UN security councilwhen we failed to convince the permanent membersto intervene to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994. We learned how others paid the price of our international failure to act. Pablo atKiwiPoliticosay it best:

After the Rwandan genocide an international doctrine known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was agreed by UN convention to prevent future horrors of that sort. It basically states that if a defenceless population is being subject to the depredations of its own government, or if the home government cannot defend the population from the depredations of others, then the international community is compelled to use whatever means, including armed force, to prevent ongoing atrocities from occurring. There can be no doubt that is the situation in parts of Iraq and Syria at the moment. Neither the Assad regime or the Iraqi government can defend minority communities such as Kurds or Yazidis, or even non-compliant Sunnis, from the wrath of IS. That, more than any other reason, is why NZ must join the fight. As an international good citizen that has signed up to the R2P, NZ is committed in principle to the defense of vulnerable others.

Now is not the time for isolationism. I wonder if there ever is such a time.


  1. Hang on – 3 or 4 years ago ISIS were the US’s favourite good guys in the region; armed and paid for by the US via Saudi Arabia to help overthrow Gaddafi and the Syrian government.
    No western troops are going there to save lives – there going there to make sure the pro-western puppet regime in Iraq isn’t overthrown and to support the Shiite death squads instead of the Sunni ones.
    The piss weak little ruling classes in NZ and Australia are exporting live meat in uniform as the price for US favour in the region – fat lot of good it’ll do ’em if the US has other interests at stake.


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