Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues know if they want to "stay in the club" of Western allies – as John Key once put it – they need to toe the line over escalating tensions in the Middle East. To criticise Donald Trump for his provocations in Iran and Iraq, would be to risk our country's favourable trading and investment status with the world's biggest economy. Therefore, the current New Zealand Government is proving just as pragmatic on crucial foreign policy as the last one.
It seems that New Zealand First is driving the Government's current orientation to the Middle East crisis, with Defence Minister Ron Mark and Foreign Minister Winston Peters the only two Government politicians making any comment to date. The Prime Minister has kept silent.
Should NZ condemn the US assassination of Soleimani?
New Zealand has refused to condemn the US' assassination of Iran's general Qasem Soleimani, whose extrajudicial execution precipitated the current escalating crisis. It was an act of state terrorism regarded by experts as counterproductive and illegal.
According to journalist Matthew Theunissen, "Like most of the world's government's, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's administration has neither condemned nor endorsed the US drone strike which killed Soleimani, only calling for a de-escalation of hostilities" – see: Iran's embassy calls on NZ to promote peace and security.
Many commentators say this isn't good enough. Theunissen reports Middle East expert Jon Stephenson saying New Zealand's response has been inadequate: "I am concerned that there has been a lack not just of political leadership but of moral leadership by Western politicians. They need to step up now and make it clear to the Trump administration that they're very concerned". He suggests that this is the time for Trump's allies to speak out: "It's fine for [Justin] Trudeau, [Angela] Merkel, Boris Johnson and Jacinda Ardern to snigger behind Trump's back at international meetings, but this is where it really counts."
Former Green MP Keith Locke goes further and complains that Winston Peters' statements on the assassination "could also be read as a justification for the drone killing" – because Peters' words included an acknowledgement of the "strong US concerns about Iran" and that "the US took action on the basis of information they had" – see: New Zealand's response to the Soleimani assassination is shamefully timid.
According to Locke, "Apparently it is now OK to assassinate any top government official you label as a 'bad person', whatever the consequences for peaceful relations between nations." He says "New Zealand must speak out against Donald Trump's terrorist assassination of Qassem Soleimani. Not doing so will set a dangerous precedent in world politics, and help make us all less safe."
For Locke, the Government's response has been "a craven display of fealty to Donald Trump". And he says the whole episode raises questions about whether New Zealand still has independent foreign policy.
Similarly, leftwing political commentator Gordon Campbell says "Peters' silence has hardly been a proud moment in the history of our 'independent' foreign policy – see: On the Iran aftermath. He also suggests it's somewhat inconsistent of Peters to hold back on criticising the US' actions, given that the NZ First leader "likes to flatter himself as a defender of protocol and a promoter of respect for the legal niceties".
Some similar messages come from international relations specialist Robert Patman of the University of Otago: "Mr Trump's actions are inconsistent with New Zealand's world view, a rules-based international order. This was a unilateral targeted killing… We need to be quite clear that we disapprove of an action which boosts both the Iranian regime and Isis" – see Emma Perry's New Zealand's reaction to targeted killing too timid, academic believes.
According to this article, Patman thinks New Zealand can only keep its troops in Iraq if the Government approves of Trump's leadership of the situation: "Whether they leave or not will depend on two things — clearly the situation on the ground and also whether or not New Zealand have confidence Mr Trump is leading the anti-Isis coalition in the correct fashion… That confidence has begun to wane".
The Green Party has now come out publicly wanting the Government to take a harder line against US actions, with defence spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman saying: "We do have to, in the days to come, reassess whether or not we are really going to stand up to what has become a belligerent US president… I think that is a good place for New Zealand to be, that we stand as a principled voice on the international stage and we do call out our allies" – see Charlie Dreaver's New Zealand should be a 'principled voice' as US-Iran tensions rise, Golriz Ghahraman says.
Not everyone is calling for the Government to condemn Trump's actions. Negar Partow, who lectures in defence and security studies at Massey University, and who was born in Iran, wants Jacinda Ardern to get more involved in the crisis, but not necessarily to criticise the US' actions: "There's quite a lot of discussions about 'why don't we condemn this part of the conflict or that part', my position is... we need to go above this condemnation of this and that and actually tell both of them off and bring them to the negotiation table" – see RNZ's US-Iran tensions: NZ should 'tell both of them off' – academic.
Similarly, in the article, National's defence spokesperson Mark Mitchell says "I don't think we should be picking sides". He is reported saying "New Zealand should encourage a peaceful solution to the conflict and not take advice from Iran or the US."
Should NZ's troops be immediately recalled from Iraq?
New Zealand currently has about 50 troops in Iraq – 5 in Baghdad, and another 45 stationed at Camp Taji on the outskirts of the city. In November the New Zealand Government announced the troops would stay there until June of this year.
The recent escalation of conflict has raised the question of whether they should be recalled immediately. A number of voices are now calling for this. This even includes the New Zealand Herald, which says in an editorial that "New Zealand soldiers should be withdrawn without delay" – see: Pullout of NZ troops in Iraq imperative. The newspaper says: "US policy in the Middle East has become muddled, provocative and dangerous."
Iranian-New Zealander Donna Miles-Mojab says the troops must get out right now, and she warns against New Zealand being dragged into another "endless war" in the Middle East – see: NZ should withdraw troops from Iraq immediately.
Miles-Mojab says: "Whatever the cost of Soleimani's killing turns out to be, it should not be paid by New Zealand troops stationed in Iraq. It's time for the troops to come home. The Iraqi Parliament has voted for all foreign troops to leave. New Zealand should respect their decision. This is not our war."
Will the Labour-led Government listen? Former general secretary of the Labour Party, Mike Smith, has blogged, to say Get out now. He says: "remaining troops should bring forward their scheduled departure and leave immediately. This is the least that New Zealand can do to distance us from the appalling cretinism shown by the US and its NATO allies. This is not because they are threatened but because the actions of the US violate all the norms of common justice and international law and are to be condemned."
Former National Party Defence Minister Wayne Mapp also says such a withdrawal is now inevitable – see Boris Jancic: NZ withdrawal from Iraq now 'inevitable': former Defence Minister.
Mapp says the original reason for sending the troops – to help defeat Isis – is now complete. From this point, he says "It's going to start to feel altogether too risky relative to the gains".
However, according to Defence Minister Ron Mark, a withdrawal is not even being considered by the Government – see RNZ's Defence Minister Ron Mark not considering withdrawing troops. This is despite, according to this article, other Western countries – Germany, Slovakia, Croatia, and Canada – shifting their troops from Iraq to Kuwait.
What happens now?
If the Government chooses to keep its troops in Iraq, then the National opposition will support this – see Lana Andelane's Iran missile attacks: National wants to keep New Zealand troops in Iraq. According to this article, "The National Party says New Zealand troops stationed in Iraq should not 'cut and run', advising the Government to keep troops on the ground." National says New Zealand "should emulate our friends Britain and Australia".
National might be tempted to push a populist and nationalist line on the Middle East issue according to defence analyst Paul Buchanan, who argues the deployment question is "going to become a political football" – see John Weekes' Middle East: 'Mission creep' warning for NZ as election year dawns.
This article reports: "Buchanan said the National Party might run a populist foreign policy election platform, equating any withdrawal of Kiwi troops from Iraq with abandonment of New Zealand's regional allies and friends." And "New Zealand First might argue for an extended deployment." And this possibility is backed up by Winston Peters saying that the Western allies have largely defeated Isis, and "It is important that these gains are preserved and consolidated, not undermined."
Of course, New Zealand might have little choice in the matter. The Iraqi Parliament has now passed a resolution to expel all foreign troops from their country. And the Iraqi Prime Minister has followed this up with a call for a timetable on the withdrawal of such countries.
Hence, blogger No Right Turn says: We are no longer welcome in Iraq. With the Iraqi elected representatives making this decision, he says New Zealand and the allies "are now invaders and occupiers."
Interestingly, Ron Mark rejects the notion that New Zealand and its allies are no longer welcome in Iraq, saying "The Iraqi government has not asked us to withdraw" and "We have a mandate for a mission" – see John Weekes' Defence minister 'concerned' about Iraq situation amid claims of more missiles. According to this, "Mark said he had faith in the ability of New Zealand's coalition partners to assess the situation on the ground and it was not for him to interfere in operational matters."
National is arguing that New Zealand's allies will be unhappy with our troops being pulled out early. Mark Mitchell says: "We do not want to cut and run unduly, leaving others to shoulder our responsibilities".
This position is backed up by law professor Al Gillespie of Waikato University, who says if the Government pulls the troops out of Iraq, then "it's not going to look good for our relationship with America… In an ideal world you don't cut and run because you've got the integrity of your country, you've made a deal with a Iraq and America" – see Sam Hurley and Boris Jancic: 'If you want a war, we'll give you a war' - NZ faces tough decisions as Iran calls Trump's bluff, expert says.
In contrast, Paul Buchanan says it wouldn't be cutting and running to withdraw, especially since Germany is doing just that. He doesn't think a withdrawal would harm New Zealand's relations with the US: "It's not as if [New Zealand is] cutting and running. A bigger country, a middle power has already said 'this is not worth it'… If they've suspended the training what's the point of being there?… Quite frankly, I don't think it's going to impact our relationship with the United States one iota whether they stay or pull out" – see Boris Jancic's NZ base not hit in Iraq attack, no withdrawal announcement.
Finally, on 25 January there will be a march down Queen St in Auckland to call for New Zealand to immediately take its troops out of the Middle East. For details of this, see Global Peace and Justice Auckland's Protest against war with Iran January 25! NZ troops out of Iraq Now!.