Dear Jacinda: The weather is a metaphor for our current politics


Dear Jacinda Ardern,

It is a grey old kind of day here in Christchurch as I type this. Looking out the window at the dreary overcast drizzly weather wafting past, it seems to be a bit of a metaphor for the world at the moment. Grim. Dreary. No sign of getting better any time soon.

No doubt as you watch other countries including some that New Zealand is meant to be great mates with struggle, you must be counting your lucky stars that you are Prime Minister of New Zealand. You must be extremely grateful not to be having to manage the unravelling nightmare of COVID19 in the United States or quietly despairing in Down Street at the sight of huge numbers of people at the beach, without any regard to social distancing.

But going back to that metaphor, compared to the world, it is relatively sunny in New Zealand. Big powerful cumulonimbus clouds might be roving around on the horizon with their wild volatile problems, but thus far thanks to your leadership we have managed to avoid them. I hope you keep that way, and I am sure most of New Zealand want you to keep it that way too.

But Prime Minister, we have some lumpy cumulus clouds overhead that threaten to spoil things a bit, and they are ones that you can control as Prime Minister. One of those clouds is David Clark, trying to accidentally blot out the ray of sunshine that is Dr Ashley Bloomfield. I know you said you were annoyed with Mr Clark and said that if it were not for COVID19 and the need for a stable leadership team, he would be gone. Fair enough. But that was then. That was before Mr Clark threw Dr Bloomfield under the bus a few days ago.

I am sure Mr Clark is a nice guy in person, but he is going rain on your parade unless you take the Health portfolio of him, like now. New Zealanders don’t like that ray of sunshine being blocked and have noticed the cloud that is blocking it. The cloud needs to move along.

As for the grey old dreary kind of weather that is afflicting Christchurch at the moment, it is fortunately not as volatile as the thunderstorms that have been crossing Auckland and the Bay of Plenty of late. But as a rental car groomer at a service yard near Christchurch Airport, the dreariness in the sky is startlingly appropriate in terms of describing the global outlook. Planes are coming and going. I hear their engines as they disappear into the cloud from the runway a few hundred metres away. The complete absence of foreign tourists, being a reminder that the COVID19 storm is raining heavily in many countries. The constant drizzle is a metaphor for the single figure COVID case numbers being caught in isolation – the fact that it has for the most part not turned to rain, hopefully trying to tell us that the strategy of isolation is working.

My American friends can hear thunder. It is the thunder of a COVID19 storm that is far from finished and reminds every time I hear of a new rumble through the media of just how lucky we are in semi-sunny New Zealand. Now if you do not mind, we would love for you to please move that cloud along for us.

Cheers.

 

New Zealand has no place in Iraq


With the attacks by Iran on U.S. targets in Iraq, it is time to question whether New Zealand should have military assets in the region.

Some people say that we were formally asked to be there. So we were, but that fails to acknowledge the simple fact of the matter that New Zealand has no business in Middle East conflicts unless it is part of a United Nations sanctioned operation.

New Zealand should withdraw its troops from Iraq forthwith. There are better places that they can could go – if they really need to be in the Middle East, they should be part of one of the numerous operations in adjacent countries. Whilst it is noted that Iraq has such a mission itself, it is also noted Iraq has just voted to end the military presence of all foreign troops in the country. New Zealand would do well to recognize that.

When Iraq was invaded, the United States despite claims to the contrary, never had a real plan for putting the country back together. It was well known Iraq was at high risk of falling apart along sectarian lines, which would involve the major Sunni, Shia and Shiite sects fighting among themselves. And fight they did. Those lines in the sand drawn by diplomats with probably little understanding of or care for the ethnic geography of the region in 1916 cut straight across ethnic boundaries, and were brutally enforced by British and French forces.

Iran has also had a turbulent 100 years with both western and Soviet interference, which such large numbers massacred in the 1910’s by the Ottoman Empire. In the years prior to the Iran-Iraq War the Shah was toppled in Iran, which up to that point had been a somewhat forward looking nation. TheĀ  Women were not restricted in what they could wear, do for jobs or for a social life. The Iranian Revolution saw many of those rights lost. It also saw a significant hardening of Iranian U.S. relations, which further deteriorated with the Iranian hostage crisis in Tehran, and was followed by the Iran-Iraq war where it was known that Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against Iranian targets. Then the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger plane killing all 290 on board, which the U.S. refused to apologize for, though compensation was paid.

It is easy to over simplify the complex web of geopolitical relations in the Middle East. Because of that, the simplistic idea that New Zealand is working to help the U.S. ensure terrorism ends in the Middle East ignores for example the various militant groups that are active – al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Houthi’s, the Iranian Republican Guard Corps, Islamic State among others. It ignores who is funding/arming them and what those nations are trying to get out of doing so. It ignores the ambitions of groups like the Kurds who were promised statehood at some point in the past only for it to be reversed. It ignores the wider U.S.-Russian rivalry where proxies in the region fight wars on their behalf.

Also, given the influences that the U.S. agenda of ending terrorism has been highly suspect for some time now, which New Zealand should recognize, it is also a moral question of whether we should be there.

I say not.

 

U.S. assassination of Iranian commander further destabilizes entire Middle East


The explosion of the missile that killed Iranian Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani has done more than just kill America’s credibility in Iraq. In one truly daft move, it has set in motion a chain of events that could permanently undo America’s Middle East foreign policy, cause another major war and dial back the clock on international security by years – if not decades. And as the world reacts with shock, the primary players seem to be becoming increasingly bellicose.

The broad consensus among the general public is that Mr Trump really wants a war with Iran, undercutting his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who insists no such outcome is sought. The extent to which Mr Pompeo is being undercut can be clearly seen in some of the language being used by Mr Trump. Immediately after the assassination of General Soleimani, Mr Trump started off warning of a severe response if Iran tried to retaliate. When Iran said that there would be consequences, the rhetoric changed to talking about 52 targets being shortlisted. And as the international alarm bells started ringing, the rhetoric changed again, to threatening a disproportionate response.

One potentially overlooked part of the matter is Iraq. It has been host – albeit in many ways an understandably unwilling one – to thousands of international military personnel, mainly from the United States, but more recently Germany, France, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and others with varying roles in helping Iraq rebuild its security and remove the last of the Daesh. As it has watched its towns getting ruthlessly fought over, first during the invasion of Iraq, then as the sectarian violence rocked the country between 2003 and 2011, and more recently the Daesh insurgency, millions of refugees have been generated. Towns, families, communities have been torn to shreds. And all for what, they justifiably ask. Thus no one should be surprised that after nearly 18 years of conflict, Iraq – still recovering from the bloody Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 and the 1991 Gulf War – has told its Government to start working towards getting rid of these misery makers.

Although the New Zealand Defence Force has committed to staying put for the time being, that may change whether they are prepared to admit it or not. As a developing situation that has the potential to get considerably worse in the near future, it is possible that an escalation of attacks or a general deterioration in regional security may undercut the N.Z.D.F.’s commitment. In this case I expect that the Army personnel would be pulled out of Taji and probably brought home.

None of this condones what Qasem Soleimani and his Quds Force did. Many innocent people died in violence brought about by him and his forces. But assassinating him in a foreign land, without Congress being notified, never mind approving the operation, has shown a dangerous level of contempt for international law as well as U.S. Constitutional law.

The ripples extend further than just Iran and Iraq. They potentially affect the entire Middle East. Iran has withdrawn from the nuclear agreement and said it no longer abides by it. This will alarm those hoping for calm, but excite the hawks in both the Pentagon and Tel Aviv who might finally get the war that they have been longing for. Russia views Iran in much the same way as America views Israel, and in a national security sense, this has potentially massive implications for the region.

New Zealand Defence Force might return to Iraq


I have heard a suggestion that the New Zealand Defence Force might have to return to Iraq.

If the New Zealand Defence Force does return to Iraq, what are we going to do? Are we going to continue training Iraqi soldiers who might then go shoot dead civilians in the street as they have been doing these last few weeks? Are we going to be there in a monitoring capacity? Are we going to be peace-keepers/makers?

Historically New Zealand was involved in the crude British operation in 1916 that lead to the formation of Iraq as a Western geopolitical construct with no regard for ethno-geographies. One might argue on that basis that therefore we should be involved in Iraq because we helped to make the mess that led to Iraq’s formation, we should be a part of the solution to its re-establishment as a nation state.

But I am not honestly sure Iraq is destined to survive as a nation state. When it was founded, the borders cut straight through ethnic groups. Thus some found themselves in Persia (which became Iran). Some found themselves in what would become Turkey after World War 1 ended and others wound up in the French construct that ultimately became Syria. The treaties that were brokered following World War 1 did initially for example acknowledge the Kurdish people in northern Iraq and Syria as well as Turkey and accepted that an independent Kurdish state might be necessary.

Unfortunately all of that unravelled, which is a shame because in the post-Saddam Hussein mess that Iraq has descended into, a Kurdish state in the north of the country would help bring some stability to the Turkish and Syrian border regions. As the Kurds are one of the more progressive ethnicities in the Middle East, the relatively advanced social status of their women would go some way towards being a guiding beacon that Middle East women can understand.

But back to the New Zealand Defence Force. I personally would be reluctant to send them back – I had doubts about their original mission in light of the apparently aimless U.S. mission which went from Operation Iraqi Freedom to general war for the sake of war.

Could/should the New Zealand Defence Force risk getting its hands soiled by trying to keep the peace between Shia, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, whose rivalry goes back hundreds of years? The rules of such conflicts are generally messy, and New Zealand is constrained by the Geneva Conventions in terms of what we can and cannot do. Were we to find ourselves in breach of these, it would be hugely damaging for our reputation as a country that prefers peaceful outcomes, but which will fight a hard clean fight if we have to.

And what would Iraq say to the idea of a Kurdish state covering much of the traditional lands of the Kurds? As with Iraq’s neighbours Syria and Turkey who both have significant Kurdish populations, I doubt their response to such an idea would be at all warm. Turkey views the Kurdish Workers Party (P.K.K.)as a terrorist entity and it is blacklisted by the United Nations as such, which would mean New Zealand could not recognize it. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan very much wants to neutralise the Kurd’s as a political force, and sees Turkey’s future in reviving the Ottoman Empire.

If we really must go back we should be putting as much effort as possible into removing unexploded ordnance, helping rebuild infrastructure and showing Iraqi’s how to maintain it. Last time this was a successful initiative as it showed the Iraqi civil population that not all of the western countries were there for the fighting and that there were people who cared about them. It would also help acknowledge our historic links to the geopolitical designs of Britain in the 1910’s.

A proxy war New Zealand does not need


A proxy war is normally a war fought by small actors on behalf of bigger actors. As such, there is a war between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a client state of America, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is a client state of Russia. As client states, they receive aid from their more powerful mate.

Neither Russia or America want the other to gain absolute control in the Middle East. This is a cross roads region between the Asian, North African and European continents. Both need the oil that comes with these nations, and both are propping up dictatorships who care nothing for the supposed Western influence of human rights.

Both America and Russia are guilty of arming war criminals. They will deny it as this is a very heavy allegation to make, but American and British cluster bombs have been dropped by Saudi Arabia on Yemeni schools, hospitals and homes. And irrefutable evidence of these events has been found by Amnesty International.

Russia has blood on its hands from supporting the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria. It has vetoed numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions trying to hold Mr al Assad to account. Russia has also steadfastly stood up for Iran in the same way America has for Israel. It has vetoed U.N. resolutions against Iran. It has ignored Iran’s abomination of a record on women’s rights. Were a war to start between the two I expect Russia will respond militarily to a direct attack on Iran, at which point the stakes rise by orders of magnitude. So too does the risk.

Has the U.S./Israel /Saudi Arabia thought about this? I am not sure that they have.

Iran, perhaps under the Russian umbrella may think it is safe and that the United States would not strike. Perhaps true, but I think Israel would. It struck Saddam Hussein by knocking out his Osirak reactor; it struck Syria several years ago. What would happen if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to bomb the entire Iranian nuclear programme and any military installations deemed to be strategic back into the stone age?

But there is another country involved. Turkey. Over the decades Turkey has maintained an increasingly hard line against its Kurdish minority. As a result some Kurdish groups such as the P.K.K. have been labelled terrorist groups. Turkey is in a unique position. It is friendly to Russia and – to a decreasing extent – the United States. It has hosted N.A.T.O. forces during various operations, including the 1991 Gulf War and the U.S. used to have missiles there, which were removed after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Recently the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become more authoritarian and survived an attempted coup in 2016 that led to a massive crack down against the intelligentsia and activist groups.

But in the last few months that has taken on a new dimension with Turkey acquiring advanced Russian S-400 anti aircraft missiles and is talking to Moscow about participating in its 5th Generation combat aircraft programme. This has led to a sharp and possibly long lasting deterioration in its relationship with N.A.T.O. and the United States, which has cut Turkey out of the F-35 fighter programme.

And then, last week it started a military operation against Kurdish forces who had been participating in the war against I.S.I.S. after the Americans downgraded their forces in northern Syria. In an already complicated geopolitical mess, this was something totally unnecessary on Turkey’s part and that of Washington.

And all it achieves is the diminishing of the prospects for a lasting peace in a region that has been nearly continuously wracked by some sort of conflict since October 2001. It is not a conflict New Zealand needs to be a part of. It is not one we will gain anything from and definitely one we should be actively pushing towards the peace negotiations table.