Full Speed Ahead Into The Quagmire - NZ Blunders Into Iraq by Murray Horton
Peace Researcher 28 – December 2003
Labour governments always seem to feel the need to be more militaristic than the Tories. Thus, we had a Government during WW2 led by men who had actively opposed conscription in WW1 (and been imprisoned, in some cases), supervising conscription and eager to prove themselves the most loyal allies of Mother England. In fact, due to time differences, New Zealand declared war on Germany before England did. The Prime Minister for most of that war, Peter Fraser, made sure that he visited NZ troops at the front. Today we have a Government headed by a Prime Minister who protested at NZ’s involvement in the 1960s & 70s Vietnam War. Helen Clark is fast proving herself one of America and Britain’s most loyal little allies in their dirty wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She’s done the visiting Our Boys at The Front routine, in both countries, before Bush did his clandestine Thanksgiving Day visit to a heavily guarded US military base at Baghdad Airport.
The Clark government deserves major credit for keeping New Zealand out of the 2003 Iraq War, despite considerable pressure from the US, British and Australian governments to join the illegal invasion and subsequent destruction and plunder. Clark was merely reflecting the overwhelming tide of NZ public opinion against the war and any involvement in it. But her actions and policies since the war was declared officially over (as everyone knows, it is anything but over; in fact it has hardly begun) have undone a lot of that good work.
New Zealand was one of those countries which wanted the war to be officially approved by the United Nations (it wasn’t and the US/UK/Australia et al invaded anyway). Personally, I don’t see that having UN approval for a preemptive invasion makes it any more acceptable, but that question is now academic. Following the victory by the Coalition the UN Security Council, to its discredit, accepted the “facts on the ground” and recognised the US as the occupying Power in Iraq. An international “reconstruction and humanitarian” programme was announced. Countries such as France and Germany, which had defied the US in the UN Security Council, and strenuously opposed the invasion, were prepared to help but not militarily.
New Zealand, however, which had also courageously defied the US, did make a military commitment to Iraq. 61 Army engineers were sent to the British-controlled zone at Basra to, officially, provide humanitarian help. That was the cover story until the indefatigable Nicky Hager uncovered leaked papers revealing that those engineers spend a substantial proportion of their time on occupation and security matters. They are performing tasks such as guarding the British military compound, repairing British combat boats and working inside the British headquarters. “’Do not underestimate how important filling the staff officer positions is’, a confidential New Zealand Defence memo says. ‘It will not only give us a say in how our people are employed, it will give us high visibility on the ground and earn us huge gratitude from the Brits who are very strapped for staff officers’” (Stuff Website, 14/12/03; “Leaked papers suggest secret NZ role in Iraq”, Anthony Hubbard). The Rules of Engagement for the NZ military contingent authorises them to use deadly force to defend themselves and other Coalition personnel, and to protect designated persons and property.
These revelations were angrily denied by the Government but led to the Greens and peace groups calling for the NZ troops to be withdrawn and replaced by a civilian reconstruction programme. Global Peace and Justice Auckland said: “Just as in Vietnam, New Zealanders are in a war of liberation, on the wrong side” (Press, 15/12/03; “Call to pull troops out”, Jarrod Booker). Television New Zealand News reporters have visited NZ troops in both countries, but not even this public relations spin could disguise the fact that Our Boys in Basra are unpopular (not because they’re New Zealanders, but simply because they’re seen by Iraqis as part of the Western military forces occupying their country). Indeed they have to take elaborate measures to protect themselves, at all times.
“Our Boys” Not Welcomed As Liberators
“It was interesting then to see one very revealing report from Ewart Barnsley in Basra, a town that had been expected to welcome the Coalition troops. This report showed that security had become the priority of the NZ contingent there (One News, TVNZ, 12/11/03). Guns have to be at the ready at all times while vehicles need mesh screening to stop stones which are regularly thrown at the Kiwis. Basra in Iraq is obviously proving to be a far different posting in terms of local acceptance than the Kiwi experience of peacekeeping in East Timor” (Foreign Control Watchdog 104, December 2003, “Imperial Imagemaking”, Dennis Small). The New Zealand media, both during the war and its aftermath, have faithfully pushed the US propaganda line.
To quote from Dennis Small’s Watchdog article again: “When an NZ soldier was unfortunate enough to be caught in an ambush, TVNZ reporter Ewart Barnsley portrayed this soldier as the victim of a terrorist action when only engaged in trying to help rebuild a shattered country (One News, TVNZ, 29/10/03). The soldier was injured when ‘an explosive device was detonated close to a three-vehicle convoy he was travelling in through Basra’ (Press, 30/10/03). However, so far as this particular event is concerned, it could be considered from the point of view of an obviously considerable number of Iraqis as a classic guerrilla action against an invader come to help loot their country. TVNZ, in particular, is constantly imposing on us the American/British definition of the situation. As an example out of so many that could be cited, TVNZ political reporter Guyon Espiner commented in one recent news item that NZ is helping the US in the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan, and helping the US to ‘rebuild Iraq’. While in Iraq, Barnsley's repeated theme was of the work in Basra and other places to ‘rebuild Iraq’: you cannot get a simpler and more benign ‘soundbite’ than that for the imposition of Western imperialism.
“So much of ‘news’ presentation, especially on TV, consists of simply quoting official sources. For instance, presenter Judy Bailey in introducing a TVNZ item about an Iraqi attack on a US Chinook helicopter, said that President Bush would not retreat from America's ‘mission’ in Iraq (One News, TVNZ, 3/10/03). While there was a shot of the people of Fallujah celebrating the downing of the helicopter, the official view was then presented of the Iraqi resistance to this illegal invasion: i.e. Saddam supporters, criminals, and foreign fighters (ibid.). Sometimes there is a variation on the Coalition's triad of foes, e.g. Saddamites (Baathists) and foreign jihadists again, but with al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists instead of just criminals. The idea of there being genuine freedom fighters among the diversity of Coalition foes is just too unsettling.
“Thus the imperialist project is standardly portrayed on TVNZ and other media as a selfless project to assist the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the kind of Orwellian crap we regularly get from such mainstream sources. Don't mention the oil and gas!…”
One of the major lies propagated as justification for the invasion was that there was a working relationship between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist group (actually they were mortal enemies). And what was the heading on each of the numerous pages of the Christchurch Press devoted to the Americans’ capture of Saddam, on the day that it happened, in December 2003? “War On Terror”. Hang on, isn’t that a quite separate war, the one being waged, not very successfully in Afghanistan, against al Qaeda and the forces of the former Taliban government? Christchurch readers of their transnational-owned newspaper could be forgiven for concluding that it’s all one and the same. After all, New Zealand has soldiers helping the US and Britain in both countries, so it must be the same war, musn’t it?
The Press made no secret of its enthusiastic support for an invasion before, during and after the Iraq War, running regular bellicose editorials. It even made a fool of itself by running front page lead stories with screaming headlines, such as “Something Evil Happened Here” - about the discovery of the remains of hundreds of “Saddam’s victims” (they turned out to be Iranian dead, from the 1980-88 Iran/Iraq War, awaiting repatriation) or the uncovering of chemical weapons facilities (which turned out to be innocuous). Thus is classic war propaganda disseminated around the world, along with the outright lies fabricated by Western Intelligence agencies. With the honourable exception of the Listener, specifically Gordon Campbell, the NZ media is only too happy to do its bit to spread the lies and bullshit. The depiction of the Iraqi Resistance as terrorists is standard throughout the New Zealand, and Western, media. Just as the Nazis referred to the French Resistance as terrorists during their occupation, and the British to the Americans as terrorists during the 18th Century War of Independence.
Hence there was much wringing of hands about the UN being a target of “terrorist” suicide bombers in Baghdad – but from an Iraqi perspective, why should they feel any gratitude towards an organisation that oversaw the sanctions regime (which lasted more than a decade and killed several hundred thousand of their most vulnerable citizens, particularly children), and authorised the US and Britain to bomb Iraq on a daily basis for all those years? What’s “terroristic” about killing or wounding foreign troops, spies, bureaucrats, profiteers, etc., etc., occupying your country? If New Zealand was occupied by Iraqis, we would expect all true Kiwi patriots to be out there killing and maiming them. They would be proclaimed heroes, be given medals and enter folklore for centuries to come.
So why is the Labour government so keen on sucking up to the Yanks? The best analysis comes from another Nicky Hager article, in the New Zealand Herald (5/8/03; “In defence it’s not size that matters”):
“The real issues facing defence are seen in the two factions within the military. One group believes in the peacekeeping role and, for instance, see their work in East Timor as a huge achievement. They would like to orient training and equipment more to these roles.
“The other group – represented publicly by the retired generals who periodically attack Helen Clark – see peacekeeping as an annoying distraction from their real task, which is to fight Korean, Vietnam and Iraq-type wars alongside their traditional allies. They were enthusiastic about joining the (2001/02) Afghanistan War, but see the present deployment to the Solomon Islands as an unnecessary strain on resources. To this second group, the overriding priority is being a loyal US ally like Australia.
“Helen Clark’s defence policy consists of trying to do both. She believes in using peacekeeping forces to try to reduce misery and harm in war-torn countries, but also wants to use the military to buy diplomatic and trade favours in Washington. This is where the defence critics have a point: trying to do both over-stretches our small military. The real defence debate we need, put bluntly, is whether New Zealanders want to be junior deputies in George Bush’s military strategies or be helping avoid wars, remove landmines and rebuild war-torn countries as New Zealand peacekeepers are currently doing in 13 countries.
“We cannot realistically do both, for a simple reason that many defence commentators seem unwilling to accept. That is, four million people will always have a much, much smaller military than countries of tens or hundreds of millions. When New Zealand tries to have Navy frigates, jet fighters, tanks and all – miniature versions of allied militaries – we end up with token forces, more for display than real effect. However, apart from the Skyhawks *, our politicians mostly shy away from making the hard decisions. * The aircraft of the former strike wing of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The strike wing was scrapped and the Skyhawks sold by the Government. Ed.
“Unfortunately, these things don’t get debated because we’re distracted by the endless phony debate about underfunding and poor equipment. This non-debate means the public doesn’t realise how anachronistic our ‘traditional alliances’ are. For instance, who’s heard of BRITANZ? These are the regular British-Australia-NZ defence meetings about the defence of Singapore and Malaysia (under the Five Power Defence Arrangement). Most years this role takes more defence resources than peacekeeping (frigates, Orions ‘[RNZAF surveillance aircraft], Army units, Special Air Service exercises…) yet it’s decades since Singapore or Malaysia needed our assistance. Nowadays BRITANZ is purely about helping Britain maintain military links with two old colonies. Why, please, is this a priority for our over-stretched military?
“In my opinion, the same goes for the US alliance. There are times, like in East Timor, when the New Zealand and US militaries should work together. But mostly it is very old WW2 thinking to suggest we have the same outlooks and interests.
“Yet Helen Clark is moving much closer to the US military than the last National government ever did (emphasis added. Ed.). Afghanistan was the biggest contribution to a US war since Vietnam (history will show what a mess we helped make there). Now we’re helping out the occupation in Iraq (while countries like Germany and France keep right out of it). Labour sent a useless ‘honour guard’ to hang around with the US troops in Korea (for the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the 1950-53 Korean War) and approved a new US Air Force communications station in New Zealand (see PR 27 for details. It can be read online at http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr27-79.htm#Bkmrk4 Ed.
“This month (August 2003) US Special Forces soldiers are part of a high mountain exercise (Exercise Cold Winter) in New Zealand for the first time in 18 years. It is the most dangerously militaristic US government for years, embarking on a new Cold War called the ‘war on terror’, yet Labour is frantically moving closer to it. The motives are cynical and never openly acknowledged…”
NZ War Profiteers
There are a number of possible reasons why Labour feels obliged to prove itself a more loyal US ally than the Tories. There is the constant shimmering mirage of a free trade agreement with the US, which is the Holy Grail for this most fervently pro-free trade Government. Whole forests have been cut down to supply the paper for the vast volume of mainstream media articles touting the wonders of this hallucination, but it’s never looked like happening and still doesn’t. So, Peace Researcher won’t devote any space to it, let alone analyse why it would be a very bad thing for New Zealand, until it remotely looks like happening. That should be round about the same time that the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup.
Then there is the desire to atone for the terrible offence caused by our nuclear free policy, put in place by the last Labour government. This is definitely a major irritant for the Americans. Rather than go over it all again here, I simply refer you to Bob Leonard’s article on the subject elsewhere in this issue. Mark Latham, the newly elected Leader of the Australian Labor Party, succinctly and accurately referred to the Prime Minister, John Howard, as an “arselicker” (in relation to the US). You might think that about Helen Clark, we couldn’t possibly say it.
There are some good old grubby financial reasons for kissing Dubya where the Sun doesn’t shine. This became plain when, in December 2003, the US announced a list of 63 countries eligible to bid for $US18.6 billion worth of lucrative contracts in the American colony of Iraq. France, Germany, Canada and Belgium, all close US allies who actively opposed the war on Iraq, are excluded from the list. But New Zealand, which also opposed that war before the event, is on the list. That’s the payoff for our supposedly strictly token post-war military presence in Iraq. Those major capitalist countries snubbed by the US won’t take it lying down, as spelled out in a Times article reprinted in the Press (12/12/03; “Pentagon will rue the day”): “It is hard to overstate how much annoyance the move has caused among countries that may have opposed the war but have still worked hard at maintaining close relations with the United States…” . Indeed there has been talk of the US being charged with being in breach of World Trade Organisation rules. But New Zealand came out of it on the right side of the US (or should that be, the Right side?). Valerie Morse, of Peace Action Wellington, said: “The soldiers sent to Iraq are not there to help the Iraqi people but for the purposes of trade and reconstruction contracts and cosying up to the US” (Press, 12/12/03; “NZ in pro-US listing”, Tracy Watkins).
And you don’t have to look far to find those war profiteers within New Zealand. “Fonterra already has lucrative contracts in Iraq under the UN Oil for Food programme, which could have been jeopardised if New Zealand had been listed under countries unsympathetic to the US coalition” (ibid.). Some NZ companies are forging new contracts directly with the US military in Iraq. For example, Christchurch company Steelbro NZ. In November 2003 it supplied a dozen container-moving sidelifters to a secret customer in Iraq. In December, it was reported that this customer wanted more of these $250,000 units. Steelbro staff visited California “where they talked with the logistics company, which is procuring the units for an Iraqi firm understood to be contracted to the US Army. It is believed the sidelifters are being used by the US Army to move containers carrying supplies to various parts of Iraq” (Press, 6/12/03; “Hush-hush customer buys more”, Paul Gorman).
So, in the war of occupation in Iraq, little old New Zealand is doing its bit to help out the old imperial master (Britain) and the current one (the US). Once again, it is a Labour government anxious to prove that it is a more loyal servant than the Tories. And riding on the coat tails of our handful of troops come the NZ war profiteers, keen to get some of the stolen property grabbed by the armed robbers, terrorists and mass murderers who have hijacked that country. The US lives by the adage “Crime pays”; minor accomplices like New Zealand get some of the crumbs. The New Zealand military must be withdrawn from Iraq immediately.