When might Iraq be "our business"?

Ramesh Thakur will be in Wellington next week for a conference on international affairs. He brings with him a subversive notion.

Thakur is a former Otago University political scientist who is now vice-rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo. He was a member of a Canadian-sponsored international commission on intervention and state sovereignty in 2001 which proposed a “responsibility to protect”.

This doctrine says a state’s first responsibility is to protect its people. Clearly, civil rights and the right to life come high on any list of such protections.

When a state manifestly does not protect its people, this doctrine says, the responsibility passes to others, that is, to people and states outside the miscreant state.

This at base is a notion of brotherhood and sisterhood. It is a difficult proposition, not least in knowing when failure to protect has become so egregious as to warrant outsiders intervening.

We can agree Pol Pot’s regime did and Stalin’s and Mao’s and Serbia’s in the 1990s. But has Saddam Hussein’s?

ACT deputy leader Ken Shirley came close to arguing this doctrine on Sunday at ACT’s conference.

“Hussein is a dangerous megalomaniac who has held on to power by brutally suppressing his own people through torture and terror,” he said. “Most within Iraq also support that view but certainly not openly.”

The United Nations’ containment policies had cost 720,000 infant lives, according to its own reports.

“Surely swift and decisive military intervention, accompanied with a regime change, is a far more humane option for the long-suffering Iraqi people. There are times when military intervention or war is the lesser of two evils.”

This is a subversive argument. It suggests to those who say, “War is so horrible that almost any suffering is preferable to the suffering of war”, or “In any case, it is not our war” (meaning “not our business”), that Iraqis’ suffering under Hussein is our suffering. It takes us within earshot of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

It is, however, not the line ACT pushes hardest. It is all but drowned out by the din of drumbeats backing our “traditional allies”, the Anglo states. “Our allies, right or wrong,” is ACT’s dominant message.

That called forth the most immediate and vigorous applause at ACT’s conference. There was a tremor of tribal bloodlust in the room. A gauche attempt by the venerable economist Rufus Dawe to remonstrate was brutally shouted down.

Bloodlust is not in Bill English’s blood. He is a decent, humane Catholic. He has therefore struggled to find a credible line: go only with a United Nations mandate but work actively for that mandate. To the public that sounded suspiciously like “neither for nor against”.

He knows, and ACT knows, that the biggest obstacle to the New Zealand people walking with the United States in this adventure is George Bush. He is a reformed alcoholic and born-again christian. His war sounds eerily like “God v Allah”. Such wars tore Europe apart five centuries ago and Europe remembers its history.

Bush’s impetus for war, founded on national outrage and desire for revenge for the Twin Towers bombing, is lightyears distant from brotherhood and sisterhood with the Iraqi people.

On the other hand, who would take France as a model? Remember the atrocious treatment of this country after the Rainbow Warrior, the duplicity and the bullying? France invented chauvinism. Its interest in this affair is self-interest (war sales, oil contracts, world prominence), not high morality.

Through these choppy cross-currents Helen Clark has been able to sail serenely, blown along by a popular majority.

Clark is in her element in foreign affairs. She is not just a politician-diplomat, which all Prime Ministers learn to be. She is her own best analyst.

International affairs first attracted her to politics. It is still her passion. In addition to her officials’ advice, she does her own internet research. She is deeply knowledgeable on the Iraq affair.

She is also consummate in her conduct of foreign policy, arguably the most consummate since this country developed a policy distinct from Britain’s. She has won personal respect from and rapport with Bush and John Howard. She has been scrupulous not to criticise them now.

So the prospect of a free trade agreement with the United States is still alive and there might just be progress on CER. That is skilful diplomacy.

It is a foreign policy with no room for Thakur’s subversive “responsibility to protect”. That would overturn the whole basis of the United Nations, that its members are inviolable nation states, free to conduct their internal affairs as they wish.

No Prime Minister can trifle with national inviolability. Nor, I reckon, do her voters want her to. Iraq to them is “not our business”.

* Re last week’s column: ACT protests that Derek Quigley and Patricia Schnauer also had personal reasons, besides the party’s populist tendencies, for leaving Parliament in 1999.