The alternatives to war: What if we did nothing?

Critics of the government are arguing New Zealand's role in Iraq is pointless... dangerous... or not our fight. But what does the alternative look like?

The decision to send 143 Kiwi soldiers to Iraq to help train the Iraq army has exposed the left/right divide on foreign policy more graphically than any other issue in recent years.

The debate has been propelled along by the use of the word "club" by the Prime Minister and "family" by British Foreign Secretary, Phil Hammond. Both terms feed the ideological debate. For the Left, both words are redolent of foreign policy made in Washington, not Wellington, as Russel Norman put it. A truly independent foreign policy must be free of foreign entanglements with duties and obligations.

In Australia, the idea that its United States alliance comes with some obligations is seen as quite unexceptional. But in New Zealand we have become so used to not being part of a formal alliance that the idea there is an expectation of reciprocity in defence relations is seen as quite objectionable.

The split with the United States in 1984 has become so deeply ingrained in our reaction to the United States that for many, especially on the Left, any defence or security relationship with the United Sates is ipso facto bad. Whatever the United States does can only be for venal reasons, and anything they touch can only worsen the situation.

So in the Middle East every conceivable ill is laid at the door on the United States. It is not surprising that many in the United States are also of the same belief, including one suspects, President Obama in respect to the situation in Iraq. Much of the current mess in Iraq can be squarely laid at the door of his predecessor, George W Bush.

It is hard to imagine that ISIS would be in Iraq if Saddam Hussein was still in charge.

There is of course a counterfactual... It could also have been said that ISIS would not be able to develop under Assad. But it did. And his iron grip was not sufficient to stop a civil war that has already resulted in 200,000 people killed, not to speak of the millions of refugees and their foreshortened lifespans. Using the broader definition of deaths attributable to the war, the cost in lives in Syria will be in the millions.

It would be a stretch to place the blame for the Syrian civil war at the door of the United States. There is at least a plausible case that early intervention by the United States may have forestalled the current disaster.

But events in the Middle East have been highly unpredictable. Libya is much worse than anyone expected. Egypt has gained a semblance of stability through a military strongman that was not foreseen three years ago as the revolution unfolded in Cairo’s streets.

Of course all this says to many people that everything in the Middle East is a vortex of destruction and that no matter the cause, any intervention will only make it worse.

On this basis ISIS would be left to have the run of it. They could do anything they liked in northern Syria and Iraq and the best thing would be just to look away. Anyone who went there, journalists and aid workers alike, would be simply taking their own chances. Of course ISIS would not be legally recognised and there would be some economic sanctions against them, but other than that nothing would happen.

But is it true that things can only get worse by Western intervention?

It is hard to imagine that the current intervention will result in more civilians being killed than if they are left to the mercies of ISIS. However, if all the minorities left and if Iraq just acquiesced in losing its territory, maybe fewer civilians will die in future. Those who remain may not have very fulfilling or free lives by our standards, but that is not our problem.

Of course if Iraq chooses to use military force to regain its territory that is also not our problem, any more than Boko Haram is.

However, there is another factor that might give pause. ISIS appears to foment international terrorism. That at least should concern us. But many would argue that terrorism only occurs because the West has attacked ISIS. On this basis intervening does make things worse, at least for us.

So at least some of those opposed to intervening would leave ISIS in control, if not by intent, at least by effect. They will accept that atrocities will occur. They will take ISIS at its word that ISIS only attacks the West because the West attacks them.

In short ISIS is the lesser of the evil of intervention, and much less worse than any intervention that involves the United States.

Because without doubt that will be worse than ISIS, who in any event cannot be defeated by any conceivable military force.

It may be that I read too many blogs; that the commenters on the various blogs are hardly a representation of typical New Zealand opinion. But I also listened to the parliamentary debate on Tuesday. Most of the parties opposed to the New Zealand intervention also ran these arguments with greater or lesser fervour.

The debate in New Zealand appears to be much more heated than in other western democracies. Almost half the Parliament opposes the deployment of New Zealand soldiers, and at least for the Greens, intervention by anyone, especially the United States. And unless (or until) National wins Northland, a majority of Parliament is actually in opposition to the deployment.

Part of the reason is our physical distance from the Middle East. At our remove from the world, we simply do not see the risk to us, nor do we wish to do anything that might invite it.

But the other part is our emotional distance from our friends and allies. We no longer see ourselves as part of the inner circle, which uncritically accepts mutuality of obligation.

It is no accident that we are the one and only western country that is nuclear-free. It was a choice that we could make that Australia would never countenance. And the freedom we have gained from being nuclear-free will always restrain our enthusiasm for Western military causes, whether or not they are for good or for ill.