John Key's fiery 'Get some guts' speech in defence of sending troops to Iraq, 2015

This belated withdrawal suggests the 2015 Iraq controversy wasn’t all it seemed

If coalition MPs are as opposed to troops in Iraq as they say they are, why are they waiting two and a half years to withdraw them, wonders former National government defence minister Wayne Mapp.

Yesterday’s announcement that the Iraq deployment would be extended to June 2020 before they are finally withdrawn reflects two realities about the coalition government. First, that New Zealand First has the predominant role in international and defence matters, and second, Labour is not nearly as radical as their rhetoric would sometimes indicate. There is much more continuity with this government than some of their members would like to pretend.

In 2015 the initial decision by the National-led government to deploy troops to Iraq was controversial. Who can easily forget John Key’s retort to Labour, “Get some guts”, an indication of just how divisive the decision was at the time. But the deployment was not to invade Iraq, it was to defeat ISIS, who at that stage had just massacred thousands on young Iraqi recruits and who had captured thousands of young Yazidi women for use of sex slaves. The whole world was opposed to ISIS, and the United Nations Security Council had unanimously passed resolution 2249 in November 2015 to support the military campaign to rid Iraq and Syria of ISIS.

Despite the prime minister’s rhetoric, New Zealand had chosen to do the minimum possible with the deployment being mainly to train Iraqi troops for their fight against ISIS. All our traditional partners, including Australia and Canada, were deploying special forces and fighter aircraft to actually take the fight to ISIS. Even after newly elected prime minister Justin Trudeau withdrew the Canadian fighter aircraft, the Canadian special forces remained in Iraq.

However, New Zealand’s contribution was not just a training contingent. In a less publicised role, there were also intelligence specialists deployed to the coalition headquarters, and logistics troops to integrate the New Zealand coalition into the overall fight against ISIS. The RNZAF P3 Orions and the C130 Hercules were involved in both efforts. The reality was, and is, that New Zealand was directly involved in the fight against ISIS, and not just training Iraqi troops.

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One could be excused for thinking that Labour in government would have taken the earliest possible opportunity to withdraw the New Zealand troops from Iraq given how emphatic they were against the initial deployment in 2015. That would have certainly satisfied Labour’s left wing base and also the Greens. Both saw the coalition fight against ISIS as just another example of American imperialism in the Middle East, and that New Zealand was little more than a United States lackey. This suited their view of National and of John Key.

The fact that New Zealand’s contribution will ultimately extend across two and half years on this term of the coalition government perhaps indicates that Labour’s opposition in 2015 to the deployment was not entirely principled. That it was more about partisan politics than a deep seated opposition to being involved in United States-led military coalitions. The fact that ISIS had shown itself to be the worst terrorist organisation since Al Qaeda has made it easier for the coalition government to maintain New Zealand’s involvement in the international coalition. Apart from a few particularly partisan activists, the great majority of New Zealanders have thought that the international coalition’s fight against ISIS is fully justified.

But yesterday’s decision says something deeper about the nature of Labour in government. While the current leadership might be of a different generation to Helen Clark’s moderate Labour government of the early years of this century, there is a deep sense of continuity that runs from the Clark government, through the Key government and to the present. The turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s is now well in the past. While each of the major parties may have had their turn in government during this century, it is not difficult to discern the continuity between them.

Jacinda Ardern is in this mould of continuity. She has used her remarkable level of empathy to gently nudge New Zealanders toward accepting change. It is not her style to attempt to revolutionise New Zealand. Her promised transformation is much more incremental than that. As a social democrat she intends to take the public with her, not announce dramatic departures from the past. This is as evident in international matters as it is in any other area of policy.


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