Iraq? Who said Iraq? It's time to be mates with US again

With exquisite timing, Helen Clark will be in Washington next week exactly on the fourth anniversary of President George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. There could hardly be a more emphatic signal that the United States relationship has been renormalised.

That is not because Clark endorses Bush’s adventure any more now than she did four years ago when she refused to join it and when as a result relations cooled from the “very, very, very good friends” status her sending of troops to Afghanistan had earned her in 2001.

The change is at the other end. Bush’s party is damaged: he is serving out a lamer than usual lame-duck last two years of his presidency.

But even before last year’s electoral whipping of Bush and his neoconservative mentors and mates, there had been overtures. In 2005 the United States, already two years in the Iraq swamp, put out feelers to European states which had opposed the invasion and had been scorned as “old Europe” in the jingoism the war excited in the United States.

Without saying so, Bush’s “if you are not with us you are against us” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 had been quietly shifting to “if you are not against us, you are with us” — which is how all sensible foreign policy is conducted. Australia fitted into the first formulation. This country fits into the second.

As Clark has persistently argued, New Zealand and the United States and their citizens share fundamental values of individual liberty and human rights, representative democracy and a market-based economy. Most countries and peoples don’t share those values and some fanatics blow up innocents to proclaim their radically different values.

So the feelers reached Clark in late 2005 via Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who came here in March 2006 to explore (and be impressed by) New Zealand’s stabilising role in the Pacific. By April, as I argued at the time, New Zealand was firmly on the renormalisation track.

It wasn’t trumpeted from rooftops. Clark has played a careful and canny hand — and in so doing has illustrated the importance of high-quality conduct of our foreign affairs to a tiny, exposed and distant country.

Which highlights the risk in Winston Peters. His “total chaos” blunder at the press conference with Alexander Downer on 26 February, however much he was ill-used by the media — and he was — betrayed a failure to grasp the iron fact that foreign ministers always speak for the country and the government when in public. Calling it “opinion” is irrelevant.

Of course, Peters was stating the obvious. At least initially, withdrawal of the invaders’ troops would make worse an already very bad state of affairs.

That stems from the low quality of the Bush Administration’s conduct of its war policy.

First, it was belief-driven. Bush’s inner circle believe that the American way of life is the apogee of human organisation and belief, that it is in the United States’ interests to actively gift that way of life and belief to oppressed peoples (who will automatically and swiftly embrace it) and that in any case the United States should use its “muscle” to pursue its interests, including making an example of Iraq with its (alleged) “weapons of mass destruction” and terrorists and, incidentally, liquidating Bush’s father’s nemesis, Saddam Hussein.

Second, Bush’s war ignored a simple precept, restated by the great Cold War analyst, George Kennan, in late 2002: “You know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.” World War I was a classic example: the German empire attacked its neighbours and four years later evaporated.

Third, the Bush war was intended to be a stunning invasion, in and out fast. Seriously defective intelligence about Iraq, seriously defective policymaking by Bush’s underlings and seriously defective conduct of the postwar war gave the lie to that. There is reason to believe, some cogently argue in Washington and Canberra, that proper planning for and conduct of the occupation could have achieved the invasion’s security goals, including even a friendly Iraq.

But, fourth, the Bush cabal shut out the professionals. Training and experience have their value. Bush, Vice-president Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and those they appointed and controlled thought they knew better.

The result is a civil war, a breeding ground for terror and a more unstable Middle East, all contrary to United States’ interests. Seriously worrying for the rest of us, the United States may also as a result now be less the force for stability and good sense than we need it to be.

The cut-and-run brigade is active in Washington. The Democrats want the troops out by the war’s fifth anniversary — which means that whoever is the Democrat President in 2009 will have no choice.

Clark and Bush will discuss none of this next week. But it highlights, this war anniversary, a simple but critical difference between them: Clark is a professional and Bush is an amateur.