On 24 May 1965, Keith Holyoake and his Cabinet formally committed to provide combat troops to the growing conflict in Vietnam. Though they had provided modest support up until this date, this was the point at which our position became the position of our allies Australia and the USA. Over the next decade, more than 3,000 New Zealanders served in Vietnam, though the highest number at any one time was 548 personnel in 1968.
We joined that war for our allies. In a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade briefing of that time, this was stated in the most simple terms for Ministers:
“The ultimate disaster for New Zealand would be for the Americans to wash their hands of us–to decide that we weren’t worth the effort of cultivating or protecting-and if necessary we must be prepared to pay a high price to avoid this happening” (Brief, “Visit of Mr Cabot Lodge”, April 1965, 478/4/1, MFAT)
That willingness to “pay a high price” was the foundation of our Cold War foreign policy, outlined at length in this recommended examination of Aotearoa New Zealand’s “countdown to commitment” in Vietnam. We coat-tailed onto the geopolitical fixations and obsessions of the USA. Aotearoa New Zealand’s foreign policy became one of ‘forward defence’ against the communist threat, which is way we were a founding member of the South East Asia Treaty Organization, a British and American sponsored initiative to halt the ‘domino effect’, the spread of communism through the region. That high price, as always, was paid with lives; the lives of New Zealanders and the lives of the people we killed when we joined invasions of Borneo, Malaya, Korea and Vietnam.
In 2015, we are again in a “countdown to commitment.” There will already be a long paper trail that bears a remarkable similarity to that which led us to Vietnam. Much of that will be unavailable to you and I and the media until it is a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless it behooves us to examine the case for our involvement in a war against Islamic State that has been made to date.
ISIS is a threat that will spread if left unchecked
John Key was reported in the NZ Herald on 28 October 2014 as saying that, left unchecked, ISIS will “rain carnage on the world.” He asserted this because, in his words, they are “very bad people.” In a soundbite culture, the nuances of geopolitics can get lost, but even with that caveat, Key’s framing of ISIS as bad and the Iraqi government as good is irresponsible. The reality, as always, is mucky. ISIS certainly are people who are doing “very bad” things. But it is only capable of doing these very bad things because it was receiving substantial US support in Syria including arms and because the Iraqi government and military is so dysfunctional and despised by so many people in Iraq that ISIS came to be seen as a legitimate alternative by some communities in that country. US military action will only exacerbate the morale and confidence issues the Iraqi people have in their government as it confirms their status as a client regime.
ISIS developed, grew and expanded in a very specific context, and like all violent movements, can only continue to exist and thrive in these specific conditions: extreme inequality; poverty of education and social systems; racist and religious exclusion of large segments of the population from power; violent control of the populace; an external enemy actively manipulating the affairs of the region. It is possible (and likely if there is active military intervention by foreign powers) that ISIS could spread in the Middle East; it is impossible it will spread to Aotearoa New Zealand.
ISIS is a threat to Aotearoa New Zealand
People like this guy are not members of ISIS, nor the development of a movement in Aotearoa New Zealand. People like that guy are unwell and have fixated on something this media presents as anti-social and powerful. They don’t need intrusive monitoring; they need active and compassionate healthcare. There is a risk that a person with this fixation could take a horrific and terrible action such as happened in Australia. But I maintain that is not an act of terrorism, it is a criminal act and can be dealt with appropriately by our Police and criminal justice system.
Of course, on 16 December 2014, Key again asserted that we had 30 to 40 people here who are similar to the Australian Man Haron Monis and whom we were monitoring. We should monitor people who are unwell and who are making threats against people and themselves. But we need not fool ourselves that the root issue is the existence of ISIS and that if we stomp that out those 30 to 40 people will no longer be concerning. The root issue is our inequality here in Aotearoa New Zealand, how that disenfranchises people and also the worrying lack of support for mental health issues in our communities.
Fighting ISIS is the price of being part of the club and the family
As the above arguments have been pulled apart and undermined, we are now at a point where Key is starting to be honest about our involvement in a war on ISIS. On 20 January this year, it was reported that Key said our involvement was the price of being in the Five Eyes ‘club’. Then this week the British Foreign Secretary expressed his hope we would join this little jaunt as part of the ‘family’. Which all touches on the real reason we will commit troops to the fight against ISIS. As in Vietnam, it is the price for our own security. We will not enter because we primarily care about the horrors being experienced by Iraqis, Kurds, Syrians and others under the medieval ISIS regime; we will enter because the US is concerned for the security and control of the energy industry.
If our leaders were honest they would say to us, “we are joining the fight against ISIS to shore up the Iraqi regime because the US has communicated to us that it represents the best option for our energy security.”
So now the responsibility is on you and I to decide what we think about joining the fight against ISIS. It’s legitimate, though horrible, for you to decide that we stand with the USA as our ally because it ensures we can maintain the lifestyle to which we are accustomed. It’s legitimate as long as you are clear that you are saying some people are worth more than others, in this instance, we are worth more than the people of the Middle East.
I disagree though. I want us to be a people who seek to uphold human rights for people throughout the world. Therefore, the military is the wrong tool for that aim. We need more diplomats and negotiators, not more soldiers. I personally think we should use our Security Council seat to pursue options that bring ISIS to the table to end hostilities and gains concessions from the Iraqi government to include a wider representation of their people in governing their country. I personally think we should support the people of the Middle East in seeking to disentangle their countries form USA, Chinese, British and Russian manipulation.
I don’t want us to be part of this family of sociopathic countries. I don’t want us to align ourselves with their Machiavellian policies. I don’t want the blood on our hands.
‘I’m a simple chap,’ said Holyoake,
‘Politics frighten me;
But whether it’s frozen meat or men
We send across the sea,
We want good prices for our veal–
What can you guarantee?’
– – –
‘Just name your price,’ said Uncle Sam,
‘And leave the rest to me.’
[Excerpt from “A Bucket of Blood for a Dollar” by James K. Baxter]