The opposite of intervention isn’t peace

John Key hasn’t made the case for military intervention, which doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

Making the case means understanding what drives people to join ISIS and resisting the temptation to retro-fit our own causes onto theirs. 

It means staring at the consequences of intervening  - and not intervening.

It requires communicating clearly to New Zealanders, the legal premise for intervention, and telling us what peace looks like.

There are a few myths to debunk first.

The fight against Islamic State is not the fight of the oppressor against the disposed and the poor. Its leaders and disciples are mostly educated and middle class, if not wealthy. It’s the victims in Iraq and Syria who are the poor.

The origins of modern day jihadism are not found in the working class suburbs of Paris or London, but in the wealthy medical schools and universities of 1940s Egypt, and later the decadent house of the Royal family of Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed Emwazi, better known as the British 'Jihadi John’  was a successful IT salesman before he joined ISIS and started beheading people. The three British teenage girls, Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana  who have run away to become ‘jihadi brides’ went to an inclusive school with mixed races and would not have felt particularly alienated by their Muslim identities.

Racism exists, but there are many other ethnic groups who experience racism without resorting to jihadism. Racism doesn’t explain ISIS.

Neither are the origins of ISIS anti-American. 

The disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the failure to win the peace certainly created fertile ground for the call to terrorism. But it didn’t create ISIS or Al-Qaeda.

The jihadists were anti the 1970s socialist and secular government of Nasser in Egypt, and the Russian invaders in Afghanistan before they were anti-American. They only transformed from an anti-Communist Islamic army into a terrorist organisation determined to attack America (to the surprise of some in Al Qaeda) in the early 1990s when Osama Bin laden needed a new enemy. 

ISIS is not a group of psychopaths. There aren’t enough psychopaths in the world to make an army of more than 30,000 and fill a caliphate the size of the United Kingdom.

Not intervening isn’t necessarily the more peaceful option. We didn’t intervene in Syria. The result was genocide. 220,000 dead and counting. We didn’t intervene in Rwanda and a million Tutsi were slaughtered. 

Those who didn’t want us to intervene in Syria, still don’t want us to intervene now. When will they face the fact that the opposite of intervention isn't peace?

What does unite Al-Qaeda and ISIS is a complete rejection of the modern progressive world. That’s not a rejection of reality TV, sex, drugs and rock and roll. 

Rather it's a rejection of the right to vote (god’s law is greater), the right of girls to be educated, and the right not to be executed or flogged for being gay or writing a critical blog.

It’s a vicious ideology that has its roots in religion. Denying that isn’t going to help us defeat jihadism. Most of its victims are moderate muslims or ‘takfir’ – muslims who don’t follow the Koran literally and can therefore be excommunicated and killed, according to ISIS. 

We can’t be afraid to talk about religion. We have to stand up for the muslim woman in combat gear fighting for her right not to wear a hijab, as much as the woman on the Sydney metro choosing to wear one.

Neither can we allow the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 to stop us taking action now to prevent crimes against humanity. 

Military intervention worked in Timor, Uganda and and Sierra Leone. These interventions were legal (which doesn’t have to mean UN-led); and they were long term.

Those who call for New Zealand funding to go to good governance and long-term development are right that these are the elements of lasting peace. 

But they’re wrong to think you can stop violence with aid.

As the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson said,  Iraq "should not be allowed to affect the principles of humanitarian intervention, other than to illustrate the risks of ignoring them".

“Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who mass murdered some 300,000 of his people; his regime should have been ousted when he began to use poison gas against the Kurds...”

The lesson of Iraq in 2003 is not that we should never intervene, but that we should have intervened earlier when we had a legal reason to. And once there, we should have stayed longer.

There is only one legal premise for intervening with force (apart from self defence) and that is our ‘Responsibility to Protect’ civilians from crimes against humanity. ‘R2P’ is not about being a member of a club. It’s not even about the grotesque beheadings of Western aid workers and journalists. 

It’s about preventing the genocide of whole communities – whether Yizadis, Kurds, Shiite, Sunni or Christians.

John Key’s promise of just a few Kiwi military trainers and out in two years is unrealistic and disingenuous. He should have the guts to make the case for military intervention and back it up with long-term support to help rebuild the region once the violence stops.

He needs to tell us what he thinks peace looks like so we can judge if military intervention is working.

Peace doesn’t mean protecting the borders of Iraq or Syria. The region may have to split into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish states. 

A conservative Salafist and literal version of Islam will probably have to be accommodated, but without the violence or the imposition of sharia law. There are already groups like this in Britain who offer a conservative alternative to those drawn to the ‘purity’ of jihadism.

New Zealand was on the Security Council in 1994. We were a lone voice calling for intervention. We were on the right side of history then. We supported the introduction of R2P after the Rwandan genocide so that the international community would never again walk away from its responsibility to protect innocent people.

Today, John Key should have the courage to make the case for military intervention, but also for peace. That means listening to those calling for long-term support to rebuild, and taking them with him when he joins the fight on behalf of all New Zealanders.