Gordon Campbell on how Christopher Luxon is turning NZ into a US proxy

Houthi protest image thumb]How many students can pack into a phone booth? Surely, nowhere near as many as the double standards the Luxon government is packing into its rationale for helping to bomb the Houthis. So outraged are we at the Houthi attacks on maritime trade that Christopher Luxon has signed this country up to what he calls “the right team” – a US -led strike force that’s intent on bombing the Houthis into submission. It is an effort that US President Joe Biden has already conceded is failing:

When asked by a reporter last week if the airstrikes were working, Biden responded “Well, when you say ‘working,’ are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.”

At Monday’s press conference, Luxon used stirring terms to portray his decision to join the US/UK mission as a moral crusade. In his view, New Zealand was “proudly” standing up for its values, and for what we believe in. We are steadfastly defending the norms of international law in the Red Sea, even while we totally ignore their daily violation in Gaza. Allegedly, our Houthi mission will save “hundreds of millions” of people from the “pain, suffering …and starvation” being caused by the Houthi attacks, which Luxon claimed were “illegal, unacceptable and de-stabilising.”

All three of those adjectives apply far more credibly to Israel’s actions in Gaza. Instead of proudly defending our values, instead of relieving pain, suffering and starvation, and instead of defending the norms of international human rights law… Luxon has not uttered a word of criticism of Israel as the IDF has gone about slaughtering at least 25,000 Palestinians in Gaza, including about 10,000 children. Reportedly, a further 600,000 Palestinians are now facing death from famine and dehydration, and from water-borne diseases. Some 85% of the estimated 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced. Cemeteries are being bulldozed by the IDF. Schools, hospitals and mosques are being bombed and shelled.

These multiple violations of international law have not moved the Luxon government to call for a Gaza ceasefire. There are screaming double standards to New Zealand’s current policies in the Middle East. The entire region is being de-stabilised from Lebanon to Yemen by Israel’s actions, with added risks of an all out US/Saudi/Israeli war with Iran. If Israel wasn’t acting with brutally disproportionate force in Gaza, there would be no threat to maritime trade.

Our government is not merely refusing to call for a Gaza ceasefire. We’re actively joining up with the Americans who – on three occasions so far – have vetoed UN calls for a ceasefire. On Monday, Luxon professed himself to be“proud” of the New Zealand deployment he has launched.

There is no reason for pride. We will be helping to bomb a desperately poor country that has been ravaged by war for the past decade, or more. Yemen is the only country that has taken significant action to bring about a Gaza ceasefire, and to make the West pay an economic price for its active and passive encouragement of Israel. The Houthi leadership in Yemen have repeatedly said that they will cease their attacks on shipping, once a Gaza ceasefire is declared.

As pointed out this week on social media:

Let me get this straight. Yemen says “We blockade the Red Sea because of the genocide in Gaza. We are obligated to do so under the Geneva Convention. Stop the genocide and we stop the blockade.” The US immediately calls them terrorists. The US denies this has anything to do with Gaza. The US starts a war with Yemen.

We are all being made complicit in this process, by the current government.

First Hand Knowledge

The Houthis know what the Gazans are going through. After Yemen’s civil war entered a brutal new phase in 2015, the country was subjected to relentless Saudi and UAE bombing and shelling of its civilian centres. An illegal blockade was imposed on Yemen’s access to essential food and medical supplies, and the Saudis deliberately destroyed Yemen’s energy and water treatment facilities, thereby fuelling the spread of killer water-borne diseases, including cholera. Tens of thousands of Yemeni citizens died.

A fragile ceasefire was negotiated by the UN in early 2022. This UN ceasefire is now being unravelled by the same US-led aerial and naval strikes. New Zealand has “proudly” chosen to send six people to help target the bombing and the shelling.

On the current evidence, we care a whole lot more for commerce than we do for human life. Too bad that those 25,000 Palestinian lives snuffed out by the IDF had no market value. If they had, the Luxon government might have been more interested in protecting them. As things stand, it is the Houthi violations of the rules of maritime commerce that have spurred us into action, not Israel’s violations of the rules of war set out in the Geneva Conventions.

So far, none of the attacks by Houthi drones and missiles have killed or seriously injured anyone at all on board the ships traversing the Red Sea. Contrast that with the carnage being inflicted in Gaza.

Trickle down foreign policy

No wonder then, that Luxon and Foreign Minister Winston Peters were desperate on Monday to shut down any suggestion that the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are an extension of the situation in Gaza. “ I think you are quite wrong,” Luxon told one journalist, “to conflate these matters.” Supposedly, this is all about “freedom of navigation.”

Essentially, Luxon was repeating the message lines initiated by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, as reported in the Spectator on January 15. Here’s Sunak:

….We shouldn’t fall for the malign narrative that this is about Israel and Gaza. They target ships from around the world. And we continue to work towards a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza and to get more aid to civilians. We also continue to support a negotiated settlement in Yemen’s civil war. But I want to be very clear that this action is completely unrelated to those issues.

On Monday, Peters faithfully parroted the Sunak line:

“Any suggestion that our ongoing support for maritime security in the Middle East is connected to recent developments in Israel and the Gaza Strip, is wrong.”

Nothing new about this. New Zealand’s centre-right governments have a long track record of abject compliance with the foreign policy dictates of London, Washington and Canberra. We’re good team players like that.

States of unreality

On Monday, Luxon and Peters also gave dogged lip service to the “two state” solution. For decades, this has been the West’s token, increasingly meaningless gesture towards Palestinian aspirations. In reality, the “two state” solution has been a dead duck for the past 25 years, ever since Israel torpedoed the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s, by expanding Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

When Peters was asked on Monday to square our support for the two state solution with PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent total rejection of the very idea, Peters repeated – robotically – that the two state solution was New Zealand’s position, and had been for years. The two state solution is a fantasy, but fantasies can be useful things to have in the diplomatic toolbox.

Just for the record… Where, exactly, do Luxon and Peters think a Palestinian state would be situated? Surely not on a West Bank that’s now riddled with Israeli settlements. Does Luxon really think Israel would ever remove all of its settlements in the Occupied Territories so that the Palestinians could build a state of their own, right next door? In the real world, that’s why Netanyahu has voiced his total opposition to the very idea of a Palestinian state. Yet has Luxon criticised Netanyahu for explicitly taking the two state solution off the table? Of course not. It is always a bit awkward when it is the Emperor himself who says that he’s wearing no clothes.

Footnote One: The language of the media coverage of the Red Sea crisis has been pretty interesting. Think of all those references to “Iran-backed” Houthi “rebels.” Rebels? The last time I looked, the Houthi movement controlled Yemen’s capital city Sanaa and the entirety of what used to be North Yemen. If the Houthis are “rebels”, then who and where is Yemen’s government? At best, the media terminology is a holdover from when Yemen was ruled by a Saudi puppet. That era effectively ended a decade ago.

Ditto with the “Iran-backed” term. Routinely, the Houthis are written off as a “proxy“ of Iran. This is media compliance with the West’s habitual demonising of Iran as being behind every single challenge to the West’s interests in the Middle East. In reality, the Houthis emerged in the 2000s as a nationalist movement to drive out foreign interference. By anyone.

Yes, the Houthis get support from Iran – particularly in weaponry and military training – but far less than what the US gives to Israel, or to Egypt. The media doesn’t usually say “US-backed Israeli forces” or call Israel a “US proxy” every time it refers to the IDF, even though that would be more appropriate. Do we refer to Australia as a US “proxy” in the Pacific? To be consistent, maybe it’s time we did. After all, successive NZ governments have been intent on turning us into a US proxy in the South Pacific and in the South China Sea. It is a role that Peters seems more than happy for us to play.

Footnote Two: The suggestion that the Houthis are controlled by Iran is misleading. To repeat: The Houthis are Yemeni nationalists. They make their own foreign policy calls, and they have ample grounds for holding legitimate grievances, written in blood, against both the Saudis and the UAE. And against the Americans. And now, against us.

Secondly, most Houthis belong to a branch of Shia Islam – Zaydism – widely considered to be closer to Sunni Islam than to the Shi’ism of the mullahs in Teheran. The acceptance of Ali as the legitimate heir of the Prophet is about where the Iran/Houthi religious crossover begins and ends.

This isn’t an arcane point. Zaydism is most prevalent in the Houthi realm of North Yemen, and in the Saudi border region of Najran. The Saudi fear of Houthi cross-border influence has long been one of the drivers of Saudi interference in Yemen’s internal affairs. For that reason, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be feeling more than happy to see the West bombing its Houthi enemies in Yemen. To that extent, Western countries are serving as Saudi proxies in a resumption of Yemen’s bloody civil war. That seems to me to be a high moral price to pay for saving a few bucks on shipping costs.

Talking of which…. New Zealand might even be able to parlay our piling on against the Houthis into scoring a few lucrative trade deals with the Saudis. These days, our “independent” foreign policy is clearly up for sale, and at a bargain basement price.