What is the real war going on here?

This fighting in Iraq is not a finite event, though it is an iconic one. It is part of something much bigger.

In a strategic sense Iraq is a campaign, not a war. It is the second major campaign within George Bush’s “war on terror”. If Bush is serious about this war, there will be more campaigns.

New Zealand was active in the first campaign, in Afghanistan. It still has a frigate and a plane in the Middle East involved in its aftermath. New Zealand is not active as a combatant in the second campaign, being unconvinced of the linkage of Iraq to terrorism.

This is a matter of judgment and evidence. “Regime change” will stop Iraq’s generous compensation of Palestinian suicide bombers’ families, which may reduce the carnage there. If Iraqi oil has been funding the likes of Al Qaeda, “regime change” will stop that, too.

But the Iraq campaign may also drive more Arabs into islamic fundamentalists’ arms and active terrorism and their enthusiasm might make up somewhat for money. It may also even encourage new funders.

But Iraq does not encompass all terror. So if — if — Bush is genuine about waging the “war on terror” to its conclusion, there will more campaigns.

Iran has been quiet during these first two campaigns. But Bush cited Iran in his January state of the union speech as a country which seeks nuclear capability and supports terror.

Then there is Palestine to fix. And the debt-ridden, riven Saudi society. And North Korea. And on and on.

Not all future campaigns will need to involve fighting. Within any campaign there is a propaganda battle of fear and hope. Within a war campaigns could take different shapes, too.

One weapon might be prosperity. A logical objective is stable states that respect human life and freedoms and are woven into the world economy.

That is not the work of one American administration. It is the work of generations in all liberal democracies. Have the Americans got the stamina, patience and resources to lead — or even be part of — such a war for as long as it takes?

This is not an academic question for this distant little nation here.

We can ignore, say, the human catastrophe in Zimbabwe because the effects on us are tiny — just a twinge or two of conscience. In any case, Bush’s war is on terror, not tyranny. Robert Mugabe does not threaten New York.

But Mugabe may flood neighbouring states with starving refugees who need our aid. And that illustrates the lesson of Al Qaeda and the war it has provoked: nation-state borders no longer contain events. For example:

* Refugees and would-be migrants to rich countries swarm around the world. The Tampa affair in 2001 materially affected our election in 2002 by puffing air into Winston Peters’ becalmed sails.

* Money washes around the world, taking jobs with it. Coca-Cola and Microsoft are everywhere.

* Industrial pollution in one country spoils the waterways and atmosphere of another.

* If the world’s climates change because we drive cars and run factories, the innocent will suffer along with the guilty.

Make your own list. The days when states could ignore their neighbours — even distant acquaintances — are over.

As I noted last week, Ken Shirley touched on this in his deputy leader’s speech to the ACT conference.

“We are moving progressively from the old order of state nations to a new world order categorised by interdependent market states,” he said.

I think the evidence supports Shirley. But this new world order is not just round the corner. There is plenty of life in nation-states yet, enough to last generations and maybe centuries. Medieval Europe took centuries to convert itself into nation-states half a millennium ago.

Meantime nation-states have to get on in a world of increasing overspill. That requires an international system based on rules that are observed and policed.

Which brings us to Bush’s war. Liberal democratic states don’t go to war against each other. But they face others, both states and terror groups, who wish them harm and have the means.

That makes this long war our war, whether we like it or not. The alternatives are to leave Bush and his successors to fight it the way they want or join with others in influencing the way it is fought, as Tony Blair has sought — though with limited success — to do in the case of the Iraq campaign.

At issue is ensuring that campaigns are chosen carefully, run by the rules and executed skilfully to ensure they advance the global war objective and not just one-country or short-term aims. Our government, among a number of liberal democracies, doubts that the Iraq campaign meets those criteria.

But can we pick and choose campaigns? Or is that the way the war will be lost?

* Peter Tashkoff, in a letter to the editor last Wednesday, mistook my aside last week about the Catholic-Protestant wars of five centuries ago in Europe for a reference to the Crusades, which were several centuries earlier. My apologies for not making myself clearer.