Well, which is it? Would New Zealand support a United States intervention in Iraq, as the Prime Minister said in Washington? Or would we take our lead from the United Nations Security Council, as the Foreign Minister said in New York? The issue is probably academic, President Obama is not about to intervene, according to John Key after their meeting at the weekend. "I think the media are a long way ahead of him in terms of whether there would be any kind of air strike or drone strike," he told Herald political editor Audrey Young. "Their preferred option is to get a more inclusive government in Iraq and for the Iraqi people to sort it out."
Nor is the UN Security Council likely to authorise any sort of armed intervention against the Sunni extremists threatening Shia rule in Baghdad. Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully's deference to the UN was not exactly an expression of confidence. The Security Council should be given time to show leadership over the Iraq crisis, he said, adding, "Sadly, we saw it fail in its duty to the international community in relation to the issue of chemical weapons in Syria.
We have seen it fail on too many occasions." But with New Zealand bidding for a seat on the council next year, this country could not be a party to action that would bypass it.
If the US did take such action, New Zealand's response would probably be to say nothing against it. This Government may not be anxious to support drone strikes or other forms of tactical support, but it would be unlikely to oppose them. The Prime Minister's meetings in Washington with the President, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, not to mention the secret visit he appears to have made to the National Security Agency, all signify a return to a normal relationship. We may no longer have an active alliance but New Zealand is a natural partner in intelligence sharing and diplomatic efforts.
Mr Key probably did more listening than talking on the subject of Iraq. This is not a crisis that need involve New Zealand or any Western country. It is a civil war that will not be solved by outside intervention. The US, Britain and others who took part in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein nine years ago should not feel obliged to act again. Their invasion was misconceived and played into the hands of Islamic extremists but the invading powers stayed on, rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, fighting an insurgency and doing their utmost to help Iraqis establish law, order and democratic government. They could hardly have done more.
Those who advocate another Western intervention warn that a victorious Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham would be a sanctuary for terrorism against the West, rather like Afghanistan under the Taleban. If so, nothing is to be gained by precipitate action that would merely strengthen the extremists' appeal. The Isis force may have taken over much of western Iraq but it is a long way from conquering that country and being in a position to threaten others. If it is being financed and equipped by Saudi Arabia as suspected, and Iran comes to the defence of Iraq's Shia majority, it could be sectarian war on a regional scale.
Neither the US nor the UN Security Council should get involved in a war of that nature. The militant fundamentalism threatening the peace and order of most Islamic countries is beyond the comprehension of the world outside. Its attitude to women, liberal values and religious freedoms are an outrage to humanity. But only moderate Muslims can defeat it. International help would make it worse.