Has the war on Islamic extremism got anything to do with us? Specifically, should we contribute to any military action against the so-called Islamic State and its outliers?
This, of course, is a multi-faceted question. What are the grounds that might justify such intervention? What contribution could we actually make? What are the prospects for success for the operation that is presently envisaged?
Ten years ago, New Zealand accepted the principles of a UN report, entitled Responsibility to Protect, which set out the need for “collective action against genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. What is happening through a wide swathe of the Middle East and Africa certainly seems to fall within what was envisaged. We do seem to have an obligation. But it is wider than this because the threat of Islamist extremism seems to extend in principle across the whole world to encompass any and all who are not strict believers. Such persons must convert or die.
That threat may seem distant to us in New Zealand but they certainly mean it. In the short run the threat may be of isolated acts of domestic terrorism - the possibility that returning jihadists, or local acolytes might strike at targets here in New Zealand. In the longer run, we might see a growing threat from an expanding Islamic movement, which is dedicated to establishing a universal caliphate. We might be sceptical about the likely success of such an enterprise but the very attempt could be very damaging to us. It may be better to fight them earlier rather than later, when they may have greater military strength and maybe even nuclear weapons?
On the other hand, we might think that it is better to leave the defeat (or containment) of ISIS to the local states, who are, at present, most directly affected. Some Middle Eastern states (like Jordan and Egypt) seem to have been a little bit stirred up by recent events and seem ready to take a more proactive role. By contrast, Saudi Arabia, from which much of the extremist doctrine and the financing seem to have come, is patently passive. The fact that the region is a major source of the world’s oil, might also make us think that merely standing back is not the answer.
Of course, there is an international coalition, led by the United States, which is said to be dedicated to the destruction, or, at least (in some pronouncements), to the ‘containment’ of the ISIS threat. So the question for New Zealand is, should we join this coalition? We are talking here of many of our traditional allies and security partners. As a small state, traditionally supportive of collective security, the answer seems to be ‘yes’. This is particularly so when we note that these traditional allies are also major trading partners. And (it might be added), what we are being asked to do is not, after all, a great deal. We have been asked to provide a few dozen trainers for the Iraqi army. These New Zealand military personal will be situated on a secure military base and will not be engaged in combat operations. Surely, we cannot refuse?
Well, there might be reasons to do so. There is some ambiguity about the security arrangements that cover our forces. As recent events have shown, these ‘secure’ bases may not be as secure as we might like. There is a question about what rules of engagement might apply if they come under attack and whether they will be permitted to have their own security force (for example, a small detachment of our own special forces). There was also some question about what legal protection they might have if, whatever their ostensible purpose in Iraq is, they find themselves having to defend themselves. There is talk that there might be no ‘status of forces agreement’.
It may be that we can satisfy ourselves on these points and conclude that, at the level of gesture politics, there is no harm in it and it does protect our diplomatic interests. After all, there are substantial issues of human rights and global security here and every reason to think that they can only grow if not confronted and we ought to make our contribution, however small. The trouble with this argument is that everybody seems to be approaching the issue in more or less the same way (making the gesture). There is a palpable lack of will all round and minimal commitment from Western leadership. There will be ‘no boots on the ground’: together with other artificial restrictions on the means that may be used and on the duration of the effort. It is not a formula for success.
However, all things considered, we should go to Iraq, and try and stay safe. Meanwhile, we should ask what we might need in the way of serious defence assets in the event that it does, in due course, come to a threat that cannot be ignored. We are presently offering a few army trainers because that is all we have. As the Labour leader has kindly pointed out, the asset that is presently being used against ISIS is air-strike and we haven’t got any of that. Of course this is deeply ironic. We don’t have the air-strike capability because, on ideological grounds, the Clarke Labour government, repudiated the undertaking of the previous government to buy the very class of aircraft (F16s) that is being used by the coalition partners.
We were militarily unprepared for WW1, and for WW2, and Korea, and every deployment that followed, not withstanding lamentations after each failure. Perhaps we could resolve to do better for future (and, perhaps, more pressing threats). In that context, it doesn’t really matter whether we send a few trainers to Iraq. Should such a time come, our friends might appreciate an ally more able to contribute to collective security than they have had for many years.