New Zealand could ‘do something’ substantial and richly symbolic about Isis without committing troops

Bad news, peaceniks. If you oppose the deployment of New Zealand troops to Iraq, you are gutless, a coward, at least in the estimation of the Prime Minister. Keep it up and you're in danger of getting downgraded to the status of quisling, cheese-eating surrender monkey even.

The matter of guts, or the getting of them, cropped up in Parliament this week after the official announcement of the decision to send up to 143 soldiers, 16 of them trainers, to Iraq in support of the US-led operation against Isis (Islamic State). The conduct of Isis jihadists in Syria and Iraq, said John Key, was "absolutely repulsive". And you'd struggle to find anyone who would disagree with that: who isn't repulsed by these murderous misanthropes? Who doesn't want to "do something"?

Opposition parties raised questions about an absence of strategy, about the risk of mission creep beyond the planned "non-combatant" role, about the billions already poured into training by the US to negligible effect, the sectarianism and corruption rife in Iraq's Government and army, and most compellingly, the historical fact that Western interventions in the region have repeatedly and horribly backfired, claiming a terrible human toll and acting as a recruiting sergeant for extremists.

The Prime Minister diagnosed cowardice. "This is the time to stand up and be counted!" he roared across the House. "Get some guts and join the right side!"

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The tone was a little less armchair-Agincourt a few hours later when Key appeared on Seven Sharp (he had turned down an invitation to appear on Campbell Live, for reasons of schedule, presumably, rather than spite or, God forbid, gutlessness).

Those who pointed to a history of failed incursions made a reasonable case, he acknowledged. He might not agree, but "they are good arguments". And yet the people making them are gutless cowards? It's all very confusing.

Just as confusing is the motivation for dispatching troops. In the House the Prime Minister said it was about "standing up to evil, standing up to people who threaten New Zealanders and our values and principles". How does that square with his remarks in a BBC interview last month, in which he called a contribution to the war effort the "price of the club"?

In this club - "a bit like we are with the five-eyes [intelligence] alliance" - allies can rely on one another, because "you can't say when the going gets tough". He added: "Even if the contribution is small - of course, it will be proportional - there has to be some contribution. It's the price of the club."

Taking more refugees from Syria, like this young boy, would show real political bravery. Photo / AP
Taking more refugees from Syria, like this young boy, would show real political bravery. Photo / AP

This is hardly controversial as a summary of the realities of diplomacy and international alliances, but it was a surprise to hear Key put it in such candid terms. Even the Minister of Defence couldn't believe he'd done so. When Key's words were put to Gerry Brownlee on Morning Report a fortnight ago, he strained to correct Guyon Espiner. No, no, this "unfortunate statement" was made not by Key but by Philip Hammond, the British Foreign Secretary, tutted Brownlee, who has lately made a habit of talking himself into knots.

Brownlee's error was perhaps understandable, however: Hammond's actual unfortunate statement related to taking New Zealand's commitment for granted because they are "part of the family". That, in turn, was an echo of the words from John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, who gently explained during a visit by Key to Washington in June last year that he didn't need to consult his guest over backing for action against Isis. "We don't have to ask, this is one where we know that New Zealand stands with us," he said.

At the time, that was awkward for Key, whose trip to the US was centred on solidifying support for New Zealand's UN Security Council bid - a campaign focused on an "independent foreign policy". Back then, Key told reporters he saw no prospect of any personnel being deployed to Iraq.

Nothing changed in the next three months. Sending troops to Iraq, in any capacity, was off the table as New Zealand voted in September. However modest the deployment of personnel now, that amounts to a 180-degree shift, and is all the more reason for seeking a mandate in the form of a vote in Parliament.

Other, more senior, club members have sought such approval. In Britain, MPs had a vote. So did their counterparts in Canada. And in France and Turkey. Australia didn't. President Barack Obama is even going to Congress to seek approval for action against Isis - albeit some months after operations began. It is far from a done deal that he'll win a vote across the House and Senate. Part of the case in seeking endorsement from elected representatives is the range of contributions from nations around the world, including, ironically enough, from countries where the elected representatives have not themselves had a vote.

In fact, New Zealand has been named by the State Department among the US-led coalition for many months now. As with most of the 61 support countries listed last September, New Zealand's support was not military. Along with many other supporters, such as South Korea, Spain and Ireland, the backing was in humanitarian aid - $1 million of it in our case.

The Prime Minister asserts it is impossible to contribute to the effort against Isis without committing personnel to Iraq. "We are at the most mild end of what New Zealand could do," he said on Wednesday.

"So if we're not going to train a few Iraqi forces behind the wire, then our next option is do nothing." But what about spending the $65 million cost of the deployment instead to multiply our aid contribution 66-fold? Or, what about devoting it, as a member of the Security Council, to scaling up efforts to staunch supply lines for Isis funding and recruitment?

Or, what about this. Iraq, Syria and surrounding countries are swollen with refugee camps from years of war. The civil conflict in Syria, within which Isis has flowered, has driven about four million people from their homes. About 380,000 of the displaced, according to the UN refugee agency, are especially vulnerable and requiring resettlement. It is this group, many of whom are victims of torture and rape, and orphaned children, that a new Amnesty campaign, Open To Syria, is focusing on as it urges rich countries to increase their refugee intakes.

New Zealand's quota of 750 refugees a year - a feeble per capita number by world standards - has not increased since the mid-1980s.

A contribution to the struggle against Isis, a way of doing something both substantial and richly symbolic, would be to double that number and welcome blameless Syrians to resettle in New Zealand.

It won't be the easiest sell. Still, some things take guts.

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