We’ve put pragmatism before our principles

We’ve put pragmatism before our principles, Comment, New Zealand Herald, 16 January 2003
New Zealanders are being softened up to accept this country taking part in perhaps the most outrageous United States-led war since Vietnam. It is clear that Prime Minister Helen Clark and Foreign Minister Phil Goff would prefer the invasion did not happen and both have spoken sensibly about the good reasons for avoiding war.

But they are assuring the US that, if United Nations backing is secured, we will be there when the invasion comes. The softening up is happening in two ways. The first is the reassuring-sounding idea that we would contribute only non-military or humanitarian support.

This could sound very minor, even decent, compared to the gung-ho Australian and British attitude to joining a war. But in reality it would implicate us in the inevitable slaughter just as much as those two countries.

On November 22 Mr Goff detailed what non-military support would mean. After meeting US charge d’affairs Phil Wall, he said that if the UN mandated action against Iraq, New Zealand would consider humanitarian, medical or logistic support.

Compare that with the Gulf War in 1991 when we joined Britain, Australia and a collection of other countries in the US-led coalition that drove Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait and destroyed much of Iraq.

The newly elected National Government had declared its total support for the war and, within weeks of being sworn in, had sent New Zealand defence personnel to join the conflict.

What the National Government offered the US is exactly the same as what the Labour Government is proposing now. In 1991 National sent military medical teams and Air Force transport planes to provide logistic support. The smallness of the contribution didn’t matter – it was never the point – since by far the main thing the US wanted from us was another country’s flag in the coalition.

Thus Labour’s main contribution to the coming invasion of Iraq would be exactly the same as that of National to the Gulf War. That is, moral support for what was always going to be mainly an American military operation.

New Zealand’s contribution would be essentially political rather than military, using our good name to help to give legitimacy to an invasion that will go against everything the UN was set up to protect.

We should also note that there is nothing humanitarian about medical or logistic support. Medical support would be humanitarian only if it were through an organisation such as the International Red Cross that is independent and helps all in need. Medical teams offered to the US-led forces would be simply helping one side to fight the war.

Likewise, military transport planes that carry ammunition and supplies are as much part of the killing as the soldiers whose role it is to pull the triggers.

The other half of softening up the public is the decent-sounding condition that New Zealand will support the war only if it gets some form of UN mandate. This is certainly better than unconditionally supporting a unilateral US attack, but it isn’t as good as it sounds either.

All it will take is for the individual members of the Security Council to feel unable to stand up to the pressure, or to refuse the inducements, the US brings to bear.

The trouble is that an invasion of Iraq “with” some form of UN mandate would have all the same risks and would still be based on flimsy excuses and evidence. There are already serious doubts about the ability of the UN to act independently in a one-superpower world. The Iraq war may yet be a nail in its coffin.

Offering only medical-type support or supporting the invasion only if the US gains a Security Council resolution mandating violence will not make the war any more right or justifiable. In the event that the US can gain a UN mandate, the Government would be giving our blessing to a bloody and dangerous war.

Helen Clark obviously views the planned invasion with distaste. She has not been persuaded there is good reason for it. Why, then, would she support it?

The big difference between the 1991 National support for the Gulf War and today’s Labour support for the Iraq invasion would be that, while again diplomacy has little chance in the rush to war, at least in 1991 Iraq had blatantly broken international law by invading Kuwait.

Iraq had invaded Kuwait to secure its access to oil reserves and shore up its power in the region. This time we would be supporting the invader in an invasion with very similar motives. Labour’s involvement would be much harder to defend.

For New Zealand, a more fitting comparison is probably our role in the Vietnam War. Just like today, the US wanted other nations to give moral support to that war by contributing forces.

Prime Minister Keith Holyoake was a reluctant supporter of the war so, when the US pushed us to get involved, he initially sent – wait for it – a small, non-combat force: medical teams and logistic support (Army engineers). The Americans accepted the offer (while later pushing for combat troops), since it was moral support they wanted.

Young Phil Goff was one of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam War protests in Christchurch in the early 1970s. Young Helen Clark marched against the Vietnam War as a student and, like many other New Zealanders, turned right off the idea of us being part of American wars.

It will be sad and ironic if 30 years later, these two Vietnam War protesters, who are finally in a position to make the decisions, put short-term pragmatism before principle and make a very similar contribution to an equally immoral war.