A fight with limits: The right choice against Islamic State

I've wrestled with this for days and part of me still wishes we could give peace more of a chance, but the limited and precise deployment chosen by the government seems to be the right choice for the time and threat

Watching the news with my five year-old last week, he was asking about sending soldiers to Iraq. He listened to my school-boy appropriate summation and said, "weeeelll, I don't like to shoot people, but on the other hand I do like to help, so..."

Like many New Zealanders, he was torn over exactly how to meet the threats posed by Islamic State and trailed off without a conclusion.

History tells us that Western interventions in the Middle East have tended to be unhelpful at best; America has spread division and death as much as democracy. And the dictum of loving your enemy – so crucial to my beliefs – leaves little room for bombs.

And yet as the days go by I find myself more clearly in agreement with the stance the government has taken against Islamic State. While I would be as equally comfortable (almost) with Labour's approach (supporting the air-strikes but keeping New Zealanders out), I think the Key cabinet has struck the right balance.

The moral balance involves the recognition that in the face of genocide and a well-resourced group with an ideology that allows for no negotiation and little mercy, sometimes lethal force is required as the lesser evil. Usually, bombs just lead to more bombs and death to more death. In fact, that's always the case; there's no such thing as a military solution. But on occasions reactive military force will minimise the bombs and death and I think this is such a case. Indeed, the evidence of the past six months points to the fact that air-strikes by the West and several Middle Eastern countries have halted I-S's advance and, thanks to the Kurds and a slightly less defunct Iraqi army, they are penned in for the moment.

While the second part of Obama's oft-expressed ambition "degrade and destroy" is an impossible dream, the first part seems to be happening thanks to the current strategy. Islamic State's theological need for expansion and its glamour to young radicals around the world is reined in, while the West is not lured into the all-out assault that the terrorists clearly want.

So New Zealand's decision to endorse the air-strikes strategy, send humanitarian aid and a team of trainers seems to fit the needs of the time. As things stand, I would not support the use of significant numbers of combat troops, but then despite what some have said that's not part of the plan.

This is an important point and one even Russel Norman seemed to have missed when he compared this current mission to the Gulf Wars. The use of military force thus far has been limited and is restraining Islamic State, as hoped for. This is not all-out war, so such historical comparisons are out-and-out wrong. As Key has said, the goals for this deployment are not some Bush-esque "mission accomplished" nonsense:

"They [I-S] won't be eradicated. I mean, if your argument is that success is defined by there being no ISIL, then you're not going to get that success in two years... I'm not suggesting in two years we're going to solve all those problems."

Still, I had real doubts about National's plan when it was announced. First, that we are being drawn into the war I-S wants (to boost recruitment, further destabilise the Middle East and bring about the end of the world) step by step. Yet the US-led strategy so far seems to be refraining from the mistakes of former presidents. Here at home, Key was very clear on The Nation that he has put a strict two year time limit on our deployment.

"If after two years we haven't done a good enough job or haven't achieved enough in terms of training trainers and training people, will it make any difference if it's five or 10 years? I mean, in some senses I think this is about making a contribution and leaving. We could be in the Middle East forever if we don't take that approach."

Second, I'd be opposed if anyone seemed to think this was a solution to either Iraq's and Syria's woes or indeed those of the wider Middle East. Yet happily our government at least doesn't claim that. You can see in that first quote that Key recognises that this fight with I-S is not about solving the Middle East's big problems, the long-term debates that lie at the root of Islamic terrorism. Those solutions lie in Jerusalem, in Washington DC, and in Riyadh, amongst others. But those are arguments for another day; this battle is about containing a particular threat from a particular foe. Key again:

"If you just take it from an Iraqi context at the moment, to be resolved, you need the government to build that inclusive government. But to do that, in part they have to have the capability to stand up to those people. And so what we're doing is delivering that capability. But if we fight Iraq's wars, then we involve ourselves in something that we can't hope to solve for them. They have to solve it for themselves, so it's about where is that line."

This is where you can see a distinct difference in the New Zealand and Australian strategies, as I wrote yesterday. When you hear Australian leaders talk, you understand quite how minimal our response really is. Limited soldiers, limited purpose, limited time.

Yes, we could have done a little less; ie humanitarian aid alone. Many democratic countries have chosen that option. But would we be happy if all countries chose that option? Would we be better off without the air-strikes and arms sent to the Kurds? And consider this: If we see this as a short and precise mission, what do we leave when we walk away? Much of the criticism of such interventions is that the West so often makes things worse or leaves a mess behind, as it did after the Gulf Wars. (Indeed, it is precisely because of the failures of past interventions and the hatred they provoked that we are faced with needing to contain I-S now).

If, within the next two years, Islamic State is contained and (best case option) is falling apart from within, then the West has stopped, or at least contained, the threat of its genocide. Job done, New Zealand and others head home. That, of course, whacks this mole, but leaves Iraq still in a parlous state.

While, again, some critics act as if Maliki is still in charge there and nothing has changed in the past six months, there is some hope the new government will be more inclusive. Not much evidence yet, perhaps, but a hope at least.

So knowing this mission does little for Iraq and what comes next, what choice does New Zealand make? Does it try to leave some legacy of skill behind? As I said, Labour has a point that you do nothing, because the 'something' is just a waste of money and time. The Iraq government and army won't suddenly be free from corruption and sectarianism in two years. But it's just as reasonable a choice to at least try to contribute some good.

If we were the only ones contributing I'd agree it was a waste. But look at our small contribution as part of the trainers and resources being sent by other countries, from Norway to Spain. Perhaps Iraq is unsustainable as a country, but if that's true more lives will be lost in the realignment. And perhaps not. Either way, at least a more disciplined military may help provide a little more stability than would otherwise exist.

And yes, to some extent the "club" exists. Just as much as exists when it comes to climate change, sanctions and tax evasion, it exists when it comes to groups of violent people eager to bring about the end of the world.

If you look at Key's comments, you might argue they are full of some rather heroic, glass-half-full assumptions. This could all end very badly yet. And of course none of this even begins to be resolved until Israel and Palestine find some resolution, the US changes tack in the region and Islam makes room for some degree of enlightenment.

But for the violence and need directly in front of us, it's a reasonable strategy for today. The tragedy is that there seems to be little will to find a strategy to give us peace and justice tomorrow.