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July 7, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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New Zealand & Iraq

The war in Iraq has never left world headlines since the pre-invasion debate of 2003. Yet since the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad in 2004, and the consequent withdrawal of the New Zealand contribution to reconstruction, there has been very little debate as to what New Zealand policy towards Iraq should be. Salient Sub-Editor Matthew Proctor investigates.
“Look I know Iraq is fucked. I don’t need to be told that, I don’t need to read the news about it any more.”

New Zealanders already know about Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was of questionable legality under international law, with questionable motives, and with a questionable optimism as to the kind of Iraq that would result. There will be few students enrolled at Victoria University who do not have some view or other on the relative merits of US policy in Iraq, both past and present.

And yet, we do not live in the US. While we may feel that the 2007-2008 ‘surge’ has led to a safer Iraq, or that what Iraq needs is less US troops, not more, our opinions on the matter are entirely irrelevant. The US government has no responsibility to us, and can (and will) do exactly as it pleases in its foreign policy.

The same is not true of New Zealand policy. New Zealanders have the capacity to force policy change upon a New Zealand government. If what they are doing overseas is morally repugnant to us, or just seems a really stupid waste of money, we can make them reconsider. On the other hand, if we see a situation where we can and should do something to help, we have the ability to raise the issue.

A rather sad reflection of New Zealand’s lack of involvement can be found on
www.mfat.govt.nz. There is a section of the website where information on New Zealand’s foreign relations with other countries can be found. A search for ‘Iraq’ brings up a page declaring “Sorry! We do not have any information on a country or territory by that name.”

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) maintains a single officer in Iraq. Lt Col Josh Wineera is based in Baghdad, and operates in a liaison role between the United Nations Assistance Mission Iraq (UNAMI) and the US-led Coalition.

Director Peter Cousins, of the Centre for Strategic Studies here at Vic, is able to shed some more light on his role. “He probably wouldn’t tell you this, but essentially his job is to report back to the New Zealand government about what’s happening on the ground as well.”

In May, Lt Col Wineera spoke to The Press, saying that in his opinion Iraq is safer now than it has been in years. “The security situation has improved and I think some of the efforts we plan to make with the Iraqi people and the Government have a good window that provides us with a really, really good chance. Conditions appear to be a lot better and we can get out and do more things,” Wineera explained. On 14 June, the editors of The Economist made exactly the same claim, but having it reinforced by a man on the ground who has no interest in making the situation out to be better than it is serves as powerful reinforcement. The combatants in sectarian violence have made a conscious decision to step back from the conflict. Given this, would it be appropriate for New Zealand to take a more active role?

Both major political parties have been prepared to allow the question of how New Zealand should deal with contemporary Iraq to fall by the wayside. Given the inherent complexity of not just the situation in Iraq, but the many competing factors that must determine how a principled and relatively unaligned country should respond, this is entirely understandable. But Iraq remains important, and New Zealand politicians, as well as New Zealanders as a whole, must revisit the issue.

One reason for this is the nature of the Iraq war. Although it did so on a principled basis, it is true that New Zealand undermined its traditional allies by not supporting the 2003 invasion. National Party leader John Key’s criticism of this stance (under Don Brash) has led to some rather perplexing attempts to reconcile this with later statements, to the extent that National quite openly doesn’t have a policy on Iraq.

In a way, the withdrawal of the Light Engineer Group from Basra in 2004, following the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Iraq, allowed both parties a simple solution to this problem: sweep it under the carpet, and discuss it no longer, until conditions change.

“I think [withdrawing the unit] was a sound decision,” Director Cousins explains. “But … you have to have security before you can make progress with humanitarian work. Peace operations are very often very difficult because first of all you have to secure the peace and you have to prevent the warring factions from being in contact with one another, and so on. Only then can you bring some sort of aid or succour to the local people. And clearly the situation in Basra, where the New Zealand engineers were working, was under continual harrassment. So as much as you might like to rebuild infrastructure and so on, it’s very very difficult when mortar bombs are raining down all the time. So I think they made the correct decision to pull them out.”

Another important factor is the capacity of the NZDF. New Zealand maintains 16 operations around the world in various roles. This is a substantial commitment for a small armed force such as New Zealand’s. It is worth noting that where new recruits to the US Army can expect to be in Iraq within a few years of completing their training, at the moment at least, the same applies to New Zealand and Timor-Leste.

“The New Zealand armed forces are stretched literally like gladwrap over many other trouble spots of the world, and they’re seen to have higher priority for New Zealand’s interests than perhaps being involved in Iraq,” Cousins explains. And he has a point. It makes perfect sense that New Zealand should be more concerned about events in the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste than in a faraway Middle-Eastern land with which we have next to no contact.

This potentially reveals a lot about New Zealand policy. Not only is it politically convenient not to fling mud regarding the defence aspects of Iraq (as demonstrated when Helen Clark censuring Jim Anderton for comparing Iraq to Vietnam, and apologizing for saying Al Gore as President wouldn’t have created the same mess), but diplomatically, Iraq does not even exist to New Zealand (see image below). Given this, is it really necessary that New Zealand reconsider Iraq? The domestic chaos that is 2008 Iraq (even if it is the safest it has been in years) means that any opportunities for fresh trade deals or the wonderful diplomatic language of ‘understanding and cooperation’ between the two countries is non-existant. Why should we bother?

Or are we even capable? New Zealand peacekeepers are highly respected, but it is because they are willing to work more closely with locals than peacekeepers from other nations. In a dangerous situation like Iraq, there is less scope for that. And the NZDF simply lacks the resources to provide any significant force to the Coalition. While there is undoubtedly a moral argument that ‘something ought to be done’, New Zealand’s capacity to carry through is questionable at best.

“We are seen as good people by the various groups of the Middle East, because we insist on our independence. We’re not going to be pushed around by anyone. Including the fact that if something is clearly morally unprincipled, as the invasion of Iraq undoubtedly was, we’re prepared to say ‘no, we will not be involved.’ And New Zealand’s standing as perceived by all sorts of groups in the Middle East is good. Certainly the Iranians think so , so do the Egyptians and Saudis, and others.” The unusually close relations between New Zealand and Iran are a testament to this.

Cousin’s summarises “I think the government [having] obviously been advised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has taken a very prudent approach towards Iraq.” It’s persuasive. While there are good reasons to suggest that New Zealand ought to do more in Iraq, there are some really good reasons why that might not be such a good idea. The overstretched NZDF, the risk of complicating relations with other Middle Eastern nations, and the fact that it would require a campaign to win the approval of the New Zealand populace, outweigh any humanitarian arguments in favour of intervention. The government’s handsoff approach seems the most principled way to deal with a difficult situation.

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  1. Trevor Johnston says:

    The UN headquarters in Baghdad was bombed by a truck bomb on August 19, 2003 – NOT in 2004 as this article suggests. Furthermore, the withdrawal of the NZDF light engineer group was in September 2004 which clearly makes any link between these two tenuous to say the least?

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