Gordon Campbell on John Key’s posturing about Islamic State

One of the main achievements of the Clark government was that it kept New Zealand out of overt involvement in the 2003 Iraq invasion. It also kept our Afghanistan role within the direct UN mandate. By doing so, Clark minimized the risk to New Zealanders from retaliatory action by terrorists – a reality that Britain experienced first hand, and which has been a feature of the response by Islamic State, both in its rhetoric and in the killing of the US and UK citizens it has captured.

Our low level of threat risk from events in the Middle East may now be about to escalate. Next month, the Key government has indicated it will announce what role New Zealand will play – via its special forces and other logistical support – in the US-led offensive against Islamic State. The relatively independent foreign policy set by the Clark government – which was initially codified within Derek Quigley’s Defence Beyond 2000 report – is being brushed aside as a National government reverts to its usual stance on defence. Under National, we will ’independently’ agree to go along with whatever it is our traditional allies ask of us, in MFAT’s fond belief that we will amass some unspecified brownie points in Washington and Canberra from doing so.

The belief that we can act in this fashion in the Middle East of 2014 without putting this country at greater risk of a terrorist response is a fantasy. Yet as we well know, Prime Minister John Key is very adept at telling people what they want to hear:

If New Zealand did commit SAS forces or other ground forces – something he would not rule out today – he did not believe that would create new dangers for this country. “Generally the advice I’ve seen is that it’s not likely to significantly change the risk profile”, he told reporters…The risks would be “no greater than I think the risks are currently here today”.

It would be wonderful to see the evidence behind this risk assessment, because – to repeat – being publicly associated with the US-led campaign against Islamic State is virtually bound to raise our risk profile. Key’s assertion to the contrary would be more re-assuring if it hadn’t been followed in the very next breath, by him saying the risk doesn’t bother him anyway:
If you weren’t prepared to do anything solely on the basis of that (increased risk) then you actually start losing your independent foreign policy because by definition you’re saying that the actions of terrorists will stop you standing up to those terrorists and I think that’s a dilution of responsibility that New Zealanders wouldn’t want to take.”

This is a classic bit of schoolyard “you’re not the boss of me” posturing – where ‘standing up to those terrorists’ becomes the macho imperative, and rational calculation goes out the window. It seems particularly rash to be signalling our readiness to be publicly considering the committal of our special forces on the ground, when our main partners in this enterprise seem to have only the shakiest idea of what a successful strategic military response to Islamic State would look like. So far, the US is conducting an air campaign that its military chiefs openly concede is insufficient, while US political leaders continue to stress that the US will not be putting its own ground troops in harm’s way. But someone else’s? Anyone else’s?

Meanwhile, Turkey – which is a key conduit for foreign jihadis into Syria – can’t seem to decide which side it is on in this conflict. In the beleaguered city of Kobani, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is allowing the Islamic State to destroy what Erdogan sees as a greater enemy – namely, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the Syrian franchise of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who have long been a thorn in the side of the Turkish government. By using IS to deal to the Kurds, Erdogan is trying to force the US to re-focus on what Turkey sees as the main goal – namely, getting rid of the Assad regime, which has been given a breathing space by US air strikes against IS.

Turkey is pushing for a buffer zone along its border with Syria – something on which UK and France seem to agree, but which the US has rejected previously, and about which it still has mixed feelings.

In other words, New Zealand is sleepwalking into a situation where there is no consensus on goals and means – and where it is unclear who are allies, and who are not. The Islamic government in Turkey is merely ambivalent at most, towards the Islamic extremists in Islamic State, and is far more opposed to the secular Assad regime, to the Kurds linked to the PKK, and to Assad’s ally, Iran – which Turkey sees as its main long-term regional rival.

In the meantime, the abandonment of the Kurds in Kobani to the tender mercies of Islamic State is bad enough. Yet within Turkey, the Erdogan government has also unleashed its own fundamentalist Kurdish stooges against the secular Kurds who support what the YPG units are doing to defend Kobani. The US is now evidently stumbling along with what Turkey wants. For sheer cynicism, the top prize has to go to a frantically backpedalling US Secretary of State John Kerry, for this comment yesterday:

“As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobani, you have to step back and understand the strategic objective,” he said.

To repeat: preventing the fall of Kobani is now apparently not a US strategic objective, even though last week, the US was calling for regional countries to rush to defend it. (The US preference has been for a military stalemate in Syria, not for an Assad defeat by the forces of IS.) Victory in Kobani would give IS control in Syria of a line from Kobani to Aleppo in the north, to the IS stronghold in Raqaa. That’s even before you consider the humanitarian imperative. The Kurds in Iraq, in Syria and inside Turkey – will not readily forget that their fate was not considered to be strategically important, if and when Kobani falls. On recent evidence, this will result in IS carrying out the slaughter of all male combatants, systematic rapes, and the summary execution of any female doctors and lawyers in Kobani who had the audacity to pursue professional training – which is what the UN told us a week ago is what has befallen communities in Iraq that have fallen under the control of the Islamic State.

By next month, New Zealand may well have become actively complicit to the kind of ‘strategic” decisions that have led to the situation in Kobani. By the time Key announces the details of our commitment, lets hope the West will have figured out how to fight IS, what tools will be at its disposal, and for how long. Do we envisage a three year, or a five year commitment – as President Obama indicated may be necessary – and are we budgeting accordingly?

Right now, the coalition ‘partners’ are making their contributions against IS highly conditional. Some are willing to fight IS inside Iraq, but not inside Syria. Some will carry out air strikes, but will not commit ground troops. Some want a buffer zone inside Syria for refugees, some are not so keen. Does New Zealand have any idea of (a) where we will contribute, Syria or Iraq? Or both? And if we do make a distinction, on what basis? (b) what we would regard as being a successful deployment (c) how long such success may take to achieve and (d) what our exit strategy for this deployment may be ?

As for the management of the domestic risk mentioned earlier… does Key really believe that a high profile commitment of our special forces on the ground in ( either or both) Syria and Iraq against Islamic State will not raise the risk of terrorist retribution against this country ? If Key believes there will be no added risk to New Zealand, then presumably he will not be committing any additional security resources against that possibility. I guess we’ll find out eventually if his hunch was right.

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Laneway Line-up… The Laneway festival line-up in January looks especially strong in female artists. Angel Olsen is the obvious standout, but there’s also Annie Clarke aka St Vincent, Lykke Li, Princess Chelsea, Courtney Barnett from Australia, Little Dragon from Sweden with its terrific lead singer Yukimi Nagano….all good. For now, here’s Courtney Barnett’s amusing video for her laconic breakthrough hit “Avant Gardener”…

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