On War, restraint & Trojan horses

National's decision to stand alongside our allies but not to 'go to war' strengthens our narrative as a small country with its own mind, but beware mission creep

It is any Prime Minister's toughest decision: whether or not to ask young men to fight and perhaps die in foreign fields. While no western country has sent combat troops into battle against Islamic State, military action is underway and the rhetoric from John Key in recent weeks suggested we might be going along for the ride.

National's foreign policy under John Key has been to return us closer to America and more subservient to its foreign policy interests. While Labour under Helen Clark had started the move – after some water had gone under the nuclear-free freeze bridge and 9/11 had taught the US the importance of nurturing any and all democratic friends  – Key has been much more explicit in his cosying up to Washington D.C.

So there was every reason to expect New Zealand to follow Australia's lead and jump into limited military action against Islamic State. That we have not at this stage may be an indication of what his focus groups are telling him about New Zealanders unease about being drawn into another pointless decade-long conflict in the Middle East with little chance of a positive outcome or it may be a sign of considered wisdom. Either way it is a wise choice.

More than anything, it is likely a sign of the importance of our new role on the United Nations Security Council. Key mentions it in just his 10th sentence and it looks to have had a significant part in his decision-making process. We have had diplomats travelling the world for years stressing our independent and peace-loving credentials, so this is a golden opportunity to reinforce to the wider world that we are more than a US puppet. And I'm sure that, while Key likes to stress that Iraq's invitation for foreign forces to enter the country to take its side would be enough to justify action, the lack of a UN mandate means an independent Security Council seat-holder should be seen to take a cautious approach.

So Winston Peters' contention that sending 10 military planners to Iraq is tantamount to being at war is unsound. I get his point, that I-S will lump us into its list of countries that have declared its willingness to act in opposition to its ambitions, but how could we in good conscience not in some form or another join that list?

The good news is that as of today our national narrative as an independent country is strengthened. The ghost of Helen Clark hovers over this decision; clearly it is something America and our other allies can live it, or it would not have been done. But her legacy and her vital choice not to go into Iraq after 9/11 is still setting the tone more than a decade later. We will stand alongside our allies, but not rush to war in their wake.

Which is good as far it goes. The fear of course is of mission creep. Key has not ruled out going further. We all know from Afghanistan that "training" and "capacity building" can quickly turn into fighting and casualties as we saw in Afghanistan. I hope that Key remembers in the months ahead his line from yesterday that "New Zealand cannot and should not fight Iraqis' battle for them".

I can only hope the military planners and 'behind the wire' troops aren't a kind of Trojan horse out of which combat troops pour further down the track.

Why? I'm reluctant to argue that this is not our fight or that we should only be involved when our borders are directly threatened. There will always be exceptions to those rules. More, my objection to fighting this war is that it would be about as futile as any war can be.

This war in Iraq and Syria is many things that we little understand. It is a religious civil war, it is tribal, it is ethnic. The Turks are happy for the Kurds to die, to a point. The Kurds want a new country, as do I-S. Sunni and Shia want to continue their centuries old squabble with more blood. Bashar al-Assad wants to continue his dictatorship. And then there's Iraq.

A few weeks ago on The Nation we asked Key whose side we'd be on if we went to war. He ducked for cover and said we'd be fighting against I-S. But to fight against someone you have to take sides, and in comments yesterday and even on radio this morning Key and Gerry Brownlee have implied we are on the side of Iraq.

This is where we get into trouble. Brownlee unwisely chose to defend the almost defunct Iraqi army as not corrupt, which is laughable. It's barely an army at all. Indeed, Iraq is barely a country.

The West, mostly America, has spent billions holding the country together with glue and bits of diplomatic strong, while Nuri al-Maliki completely undermined any effort at reconciliation amongst the country's disparate groups. Many wiser folk than I have already given up on Iraq as a country – at least the random borders drawn after World War I by other Western powers – and say that the three countries inside it – one Kurdish, one Shia and one Sunni – should be set free. Who knows if that would help or make things worse, but it seems pointless to waste a single New Zealand life in defence of a country that may well not even exist in any real sense in a decade.

And the decision announced on war yesterday does suggest some sympathy of that viewpoint. New Zealand has done about as little as it can. It is important that we somehow show our resistance to I-S and stand alongside so many other allies across the world. Of course a few planners and trainers will do nothing to change the fate of Iraq or its army. Our contribution is practically futile, but sends the right message.

It is all about perception. But in practical terms we must as the weeks go by resist any temptation to be drawn further in.

One quibble: The line Key and Brownlee are using that I-S is the "richest terrorist entity in history" should be challenged, especially in the Middle Eastern context. I can imagine many Muslims pointing to the Crusaders as a richer group of terrorists.

As for the passport issues, I'll allow others more legally qualified to write on those. But I'd ask (Andrew?) how we can talk about cancelling passports when just two months ago Britain backed away from such tactics out of fear it would break international law to make a citizen essentially stateless.

The British were talking more about not allowing UK jihadis back into the country, whereas we seem to be talking about stopping them leaving. Does that make a difference? Or is our approach also at risk of breaking international laws?

It's interesting to note over there that even former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve has written warning of not over-reacting to this perceived terror threat and not undermining our own rule of law and civil liberties out of fear.

Which is a good point to end on. As much as the Prime Minister talks of a new era of terrorism and yes, the internet gives these groups more reach than before, their mission remains the same: To use fear to provoke and confront us.

I haven't written about the intelligence aspects of yesterday's decision because I've not time and I'm less informed on their implications, but they trouble me as does any extension of spying powers. Surely we have enough anti-terror laws by now.

Instead, we should double down on the values and rule of law that set us apart from groups such as I-S and show that they cannot change or define us. Key spoke of his duty to protect our "way of life" and "values". Let's hope he remembers that in the months to come.