The greater good

by The Listener / 19 February, 2015
Forget ingratiating ourselves with our powerful allies – morality dictates supporting the fight against Isis is, quite simply, the right thing to do.
John Key
John Key: joining the coalition is “the price of joining the club”. Photo/Thinkstock

Prime Minister John Key says joining the coalition against Islamic State is “the price of joining the club”. It is a sad reflection of his values if he truly does see New Zealand’s obligations in those terms. In fact, joining the coalition is not about ingratiating ourselves with powerful friends and allies, any more than it is about fulfilling any obligation we might have to the “family”, to use British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s patronising term. The reason New Zealanders should support the fight against Isis is quite simple: it’s the right thing to do.

The Government should have no difficulty justifying our involvement, any more than the governments of Germany, Denmark, Canada, Belgium and Morocco do. We need look no further than the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine adopted by a shamed United Nations after the world allowed genocide in Rwanda and the Srebrenica massacre to go unchallenged two decades ago. “R2P”, as it’s known, is the secular equivalent of the Christian notion of a just war in which the innocent are defended against aggression. In essence, it obliges the international community to step in where a state is unable or unwilling to protect its people from the type of atrocity now occurring regularly in parts of Iraq and Syria.

But for those who insist on a pragmatic political justification as well as a moral one, the thought of Isis filling the power vacuum in Iraq and Syria and imposing a fundamentalist caliphate over a large swathe of the Middle East, from which its terrorising tentacles could stretch in all directions, might just clinch it.

That aside, what appears to be overlooked is that our role would be merely supportive and very modest. To listen to some anguished protests, it’s as if we’re planning to dispatch entire bomber squadrons – a tricky feat since the air force was stripped of its combat capability in 2001. (Helen Clark insisted at the time that we existed in a “benign strategic environment”, an assessment that in hindsight looks wildly fanciful.) New Zealand’s commitment goes no further than a proposal to help train Iraqi troops – at Iraq’s invitation – to defend their country against a sadistic, criminal army bent on exterminating or enslaving all who oppose it. How could that not be regarded as honourable?

Opponents of New Zealand involvement, however, present a range of arguments. They say the outcome of military intervention is unpredictable; that the West destabilised Iraq in the first place and risks compounding the situation; and that quick-fix military solutions won’t achieve anything in a part of the world dogged by complex religious, economic and political tensions. There’s also the cop-out argument: terrible things are happening elsewhere in the world too, but we can’t help everyone, so we shouldn’t help anyone.

There’s an element of truth in many of these objections, especially the one emphasising the importance of a long-term “holistic” goal – the Archbishop of Canterbury’s term – in Iraq. But these objections don’t add up to an argument that we should sit on our hands and allow evil to prevail. Not even the Archbishop suggests that.

It is certainly true that America’s cosy relationship with corrupt, repressive Saudi Arabia does nothing for the credibility of the coalition. But if nations like Australia, Canada and New Zealand are to have any leverage in pressuring the US to exert influence over Saudi actions, we cannot simply look the other way.

Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman, David Shearer, suggests the best contribution New Zealand can make is to help Iraq economically, perhaps with agricultural advice. What he fails to explain is how Iraq can develop economically while it’s being brutalised by murderous jihadis, or how aid workers could function while at risk of being kidnapped and beheaded. Economic reconstruction, the development of stable political institutions, the creation of a civil society – all are worthy goals that New Zealand might well be able to help Iraq achieve. But first things first.

New Zealand should not treat involvement in the fight against Isis as something simply expected of us, as Key seems to suggest. There are times in human history when military action against an evil enemy is the only moral option. And as the examples of liberal, democratic Germany and Japan remind us, good can eventually come from even the darkest moments.


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