Aussie foreign minister says NZ's Iraq strategy plays into terrorists' hands

John Key has put a time limit on our stay in Iraq, but Australia isn't impressed with that kind of thinking, showing the Wellington-Canberra divide on Iraq

John Key and Tony Abbott were putting a brave face on it today, with talk of the countries' "long, strong and intimate partnership", but on Iraq the cracks are showing.

There's no doubt New Zealand and Australian defence forces and politicians work closely on these sorts of issues, but there's no hiding the fact that they are taking very different approaches to Islamic State. While Key says our commitment to a two-year effort is set in stone, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said giving a timeframe is just playing into the terrorists' hands, effectively damning our strategy against Islamic State.

Not very ANZAC.

Australia has been at the gung-ho end of the response, quick to send in special forces, while New Zealand has taken months slowly coming to a decision to send in just 16 trainers, plus support and logistics personnel. 

While the rhetoric from both countries has been strong -- with talk of an evil, brutal regime and a great risk to the global community -- Australia's actions more honestly reflect that sort of language than New Zealand's. 

When John Key announced the decision to send those trainers and troops to Irag, he talked openly about a joint force with Australia. On the other side of the Tasman, the Australian government was hinting at an announcement in short order. Yet Abbott and Bishop have been in the country these past two days with nothing confirmed. Indeed Bishop get rather snippy when on The Nation Lisa Owen asked how the joint mission would work.

JB: I’m not saying it is a joint operation.

LO: Is it not going to be a joint operation? Is there some—?

JB: Well, the Prime Minister of Australia has not made an announcement, so I’m not sure what you’re going on.

LO: In saying that, our Prime Minister has publicly said that it’s likely to be a joint operation. Is he mistaken in that?

JB: I am not pre-empting any announcement that my prime minister would make. 

But the different strategic approach became clear when Bishop talked about setting a time limit for Australia's involvement in the war against Islamic State. She said:

It’s not useful to put a timeframe on it. That would just play into the hands of the terrorist organisations. They would either wait it out or increase their activities, so I don’t intend to give the terrorist organisation the comfort of knowing how long the coalition of countries will seek to defeat it.

Contrast that to John Key speaking on the same programme, to Paddy Gower:

JK: 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.

PG: So how concrete is this? How concrete is this?

JK: Look, I’ve made it quite clear, for instance, to the Australian prime minister that we’re out in two years. That’s our mandate that we’ve got.That’s what we intend to follow through. 

So New Zealand has chosen an approach that Australia thinks plays "into the hands of the terrorist organisations". That's a strategic divide bigger than the Tasman. While neither side will want to inflame the situation, Bishop's assessment of New Zealand's option seems scathing, as is Key's assessment of what Australia is doing. At very least, they are at odds in their thinking.

Consider then that Australia has sent in special forces and New Zealand won't. In fact, Key says doing nothing in Iraq is a bad choice because Islamic State is already a risk to New Zealanders and we have obligations to our friends. But, by his judgement, doing more is also unwise.

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.

He warns that if we don't limit our involvement we could be in the Middle East forever.

For two countries with such a long and close friendship, this is quite a strategic divide. No wonder there are still details to be worked out before any joint mission can be agreed.