Apparently, the Key government is still pondering how New Zealand will contribute to the fight against Islamic State. Long may it ponder, given the lack of consensus among our allies as to how to fight IS, where to fight it (Syria, Iraq, or both ?) and with whose ground troops, pray tell. Not to mention the fact that no-one involved seems to have the foggiest idea of what would constitute victory, or what an exit strategy would look like. Face it: open-ended commitments to poorly defined campaigns rarely turn out well.
There is precedent for caution. Even in the 1960s when the Cold War was at its height, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake played a very astute hand at keeping New Zealand’s Vietnam War contribution down to the bare minimum. (i.e., we sent surgical units, then a small team of gunners, and then only belatedly an SAS presence and a couple of infantry companies, deployed with the Australians.) At the height of our contribution in 1968, we had only 548 military personnel in Vietnam, while our allies had tens and hundreds of thousands of troops involved.
In Afghanistan our efforts were equally modest in scale: a provincial reconstruction team, and a 35 strong SAS unit rotated four times. On past performance therefore, we seem unlikely to be at the forefront of putting boots on the ground in Syria, or Iraq. According to Prime Minister John Key, an airlift transport support role in Iraq might be in order.
If so, this would be not dissimilar to the escort role that our Navy and Air Force played surreptitiously with respect to the Iraq invasion in 2003, as revealed by Nicky Hager in his previous book Other Peoples Wars. Given how Hager had such a prominent part in the recent election campaign it would be highly ironic if the first major foreign policy decision that John Key makes in his third term would be to reprise the kind of activities in Iraq first revealed by Hager, and derided at the time as fiction by Key. It would be a case of life imitating art for Key, and history repeating itself for everyone else. We just have to wait until Key discloses the details.
Since the actions of Islamic State – and its use of horror as a military tactic – has painted such a highly negative view of Islam, its hardly surprising that the likes of the US comedian Bill Maher have picked up the cartoon version of Islam and run with it, while Fox News commentator Andrea Tantaros has been advocating a bullet in the head as being the only response that Muslims understand. Full marks then to Ben Affleck for tackling head on the crude generalisations about Islam made by Maher and author Sam Harris. Since Harris talks in the heated exchange with Affleck about those Muslims “who use democracy against itself’ it is worth citing the case of Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring. In contrast to events in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain – all of them being examples of “Arab Spring” flowerings of democracy that have so far, failed to deliver much beyond further suffering – Tunisia has been a remarkable exception.
Tunisia has been cited before by this column before, both with respect to this fantastic piece of political street theatre aimed at getting out the vote and with regard to the danger that Salafist extremists were posing to its march to democracy. This very recent article on Juan Cole’s Informed Comment site updates the situation in Tunisia, and it is a pretty remarkable story. Briefly, having toppled the dictator Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, Tunisia eventually elected a moderate Islamic party called Al-Nahda which – although it had a mandate to rule – not only brought two secular parties on board to form a coalition government, but also invited one of its secular former opponents to be Prime Minister. Subsequently, after the Salafist attacks in 2013 mentioned in the above Scoop column took place, Al-Nahda’s response was just as extraordinary:
To break the downward spiral of deadlock and violence four non-party institutions, led by the Tunisian trade union movement assembled a meeting of the government and opposition party leaders in the fall of 2013. Late in the year after many tortuous meetings the Nahda-led governmental coalition agreed to step down to be replaced by a government of non-party technicians.
Then in January 2014 a constitution acceptable to both Islamists and secularists was agreed upon. Scheduled for later this month are parliamentary elections to be followed by a presidential election in November….. A final coda: As of this date al-Nahda is not presenting a candidate for the presidential election next month.
How many other elected governments would agree to resign, for the greater public good? Part of the reason why Tunisia has (so far) succeeded, while others have failed is due to the strength of its civil institutions. These (somehow) survived the Ben Ali dictatorship, while by contrast Libya’s civil institutions were destroyed by Muammur Ghaddafi. The more important reason for Tunisia’s relative success has been its President and leader of Al-Nahda, Rachid Ghannouchi.
For the past 40 years Ghannouchi has been a disciple of the Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi, whose writings systematically sought a union between the principles of Islam and modern democracy. In his role of theorist and intellectual foundation for democratic Islam, Bennabi stands as an arch rival to Sayyid Qutb, the most influential writer in the development of radical Islam and jihadism. In his youth, Ghannouchi had admired Qutb, but came to see Bennabi as being a more profound thinker.
After the Ben Ali dictatorship was overthrown, Ghannouchi returned from exile in London and has since put Bennabi’s principles in action. He has (so far) steered his country away from one party rule, and tacked strategically to avoid having the democratic experiment derailed by divisions between secularists and Muslims, and between moderate Muslims and Salafists. Tunisia is not a perfect society today by any means, but – given the pitfalls it has avoided – it deserves admiration.
New Zealand has had experience with one other prominent pupil of Malek Bennabi – namely, the Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui. (Zaoui was one of Bennabi’s students at the University of Algiers.) Like Bill Maher, our SIS had no clue about the vast range of beliefs and attitudes within Islam, or about its genuinely democratic thinkers. The SIS saw what it wanted to see in Zaoui and that – incidentally – is a good reason why next year’s ‘review’ (aka expansion) of the powers of the SIS should be of concern to everyone.
At least the Ebola epidemic is opening up opportunities for somebody. Right now, things are looking good for the domain squatter who owns the ebola.com domain name. It can be yours for a mere $150,000, according to Blue String Ventures, the current domain owner:
“Ebola.com would be a great domain for a pharmaceutical company working on a vaccine or cure, a company selling pandemic or disaster-preparedness supplies, or a medical company wishing to provide information and advertise services,” Jon Schultz, Blue String’s president, told CNBC. “There could be many other applications as well. With so many people concerned about the disease, any advertisement referring people to Ebola.com should get an excellent response.”
Keep that in mind. With 4,000 people already dead from the virus, the fatalities, related publicity and promotional opportunities can only rise from here, and take the price tag for ebola.com along with them. Schultz has called his $150,000 price tag “not a tremendous amount for a premium domain.” Sheesh.