Terence O'Brien: Iraq mission case of misguided foreign policy

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The implications of 143 NZ Defence Force personnel on a mission to train Iraqi troops to fight Isis (Islamic State, Isil) was the subject of a forum at Parliament last night, organised by foreign affairs specialists Diplosphere. Among the respected commentators presenting their views were Robert Ayson (professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University), Terence O'Brien (former diplomat and senior fellow at Victoria's Centre for Strategic Studies) and Professor Robert G Patman (a professor of international relations at Otago University.)
Prime Minister John Key announcing the Government's decision over Isis in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key announcing the Government's decision over Isis in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The decision to commit NZ military contingent to Iraq is a case of misguided foreign policy.

During its recent successful UN Security Council campaign, NZ extolled its independent foreign policy. It emphasised the country belongs to no formal alliance, grouping or association with first claim upon NZ's allegiance as a Council member.

The explanation now given for the NZ military commitment to Iraq actually contradicts campaign testimony, and signals a step change in NZ policy, even as the country has hardly warmed its Council seat.

The commitment is portrayed as the price for NZ membership of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement.

Five Eyes is an expedient system of information exchange with no implication requiring common foreign policy. In 2003 two Five Eyes partners Canada and NZ, declined involvement with the highly controversial military invasion of Iraq led by the other three partners.

That proved a monumental disaster which has helped spawn ISIL. NZ's hard won UNSC seat is being quickly employed to signal Club solidarity notwithstandingserious mishap.

NZ is not ready for considered debate about Five Eyes and how it actually supports our changing 21st century external interests. But the day will come.

It is claimed reasonably enough that the choice for NZ is not 'to do nothing'. NZ possesses in its small professional defence force an undeniable national asset.

Throughout the months of agonising about the nature of the NZ response there seems however to have been notable reliance by government upon military advice alone. The diplomatic dimension has been muchless evident.

Our hard won UNSC seat provides that dimension. In its first UNSC pronouncement, NZ pinned its colours to helping re-energize the Palestine/Israel peace process, and appointed its UN Ambassador as special envoy. The UNSC seat is a rare privilege for NZ.

It is logical andentirely respectable to represent our efforts around the Council table as an authentic contribution to resolving this particularly mortifying cause of so much Middle Eastern desolation. It requires that NZ be seen to expend diplomatic energy and ingenuity.

There is no guarantee of success. There is no guarantee whatsoever either in regard to a military commitment. All the realities of NZ's situation point resolutely to the diplomatic option, coupled with commitment to post-conflict rehabilitation and generosity with refugees.

Within the Middle East anarchy is heaped upon anarchy in a cascade of violence which defies rational outside understanding. Islam confronts devastating internal religious violence.

The anarchy can in the end, only be subdued through concerted efforts by political and religious leadership from within the region itself, and in the wider Islamic world. Outside military power will accomplish little.

NZ's claim to independent foreign policy should not moreover discount destructive political factors in the Middle East. For a century or longer no other region has suffered equivalent levels of prolonged outside intrusion by powerful governments bent upon imposing their versions of order.

The record is tarnished and stringent. While our imaginations are gripped by the hideous inhumanity of radical Islam, it is important to acknowledge that there has been no monopoly on inexcusable violence within the region.

Terence O'Brien is former diplomat and senior fellow at Victoria's Centre for Strategic Studies.

- NZ Herald

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