Statecraft and sending troops to Iraq

Let’s be clear: constitutionally, the Executive decides where and how troops are deployed. John Key did not need Parliament’s approval to go to war.

And let’s be clear: Key is going to war. Iraq is at war. Training its troops is joining its war.

But Key’s denial of a parliamentary vote is a mite regal in the 2010s. We are a modern democracy. When the state goes to war now, it is not just a few thousand of barons’ men or mercenaries. It is the people who go to war.

That was one of our wakeups in the first world war. As Katie Hunter and Kirstie Ross put it in “Holding on to Home”, “while nations declared war it was families and communities who waged it, producing and provisioning recruits and adjusting to the consequences”.

Communities’ and families’ consequence of Key’s war will be taxpayer dollars, possibly a lost family member or two and maybe a (slightly?) higher risk of deranged-individual or cyber-hyped jihadist action here.

Key talked of a “mandate” on TV3’s The Nation at the weekend. Winning the election did give him a mandate to govern and governing includes going to war. But for most voters the mandate has limits, which many think war goes beyond. That is where parliamentary approval comes in.

Well, the only reason Key couldn’t get a majority in Parliament last week is that he is one short until National wins the Northland by-election (provided Winston Peters’ quixotic venture into the seat doesn’t succeed).

So what’s the democracy fuss? The fuss is that even then a vote for the war would be only 61-60, not the broad cross-party support there was in 1914 and 1939 — but which there was not in the 1960s when Sir Keith Holyoake reluctantly went to war in Vietnam alongside the United States.

Alongside the United States is where Key’s instinct takes him, tugging at the apron strings of our “independent foreign policy”, to which he still pays lipservice, to the point where foreign media routinely label us a United States “ally”.

That instinct is probably one driver of Key’s rant at the end of the non-determinant parliamentary debate last week in which five parties, including two of his support parties, opposed military deployment. Focus groups are likely to have delivered a similar message.

Result: Key cannot show to the “five-eyes” partners — the “club”, to use his word, or “family”, the British Foreign Secretary’s archaic imperial presumption and misperception — that he can firmly carry his country in this venture. Result: he has done as little as he can for as short a time as he can and still stay in the “club”.

So Key’s hooligan reply at the end of the parliamentary debate is understandable. But it was the antithesis of what the occasion called for. War is an act of state, requiring statesmanship. In his response to parties opposing military deployment he sounded like a teenager out of control of his emotions.

Emotion is a risky basis for going to war — or for the conduct of any element of foreign affairs.

Even if beheadings — which are routine in “friend” Saudi Arabia — and burnings, rape, slavery and starvation are emotionally disturbing, responding with emotion may be what the Islamic State (ISIL) wants.

The point, as a Foreign Affairs magazine article has detailed, is that ISIL is not just a terrorist band like al Qaeda. To contain it needs new tactics. ISIL is now a quasi-state: in control of a territory and with an army of 30,000, a functioning administration and revenue sources and expansionary ambitions. The war we are joining is rump-Iraq’s against this entity.

And just what is ISIL? A New York Times editorial said on Friday: “How much its terrible actions are rooted in religious zealotry, raw psychopathy and political ideology is hard to determine.”

That indicates outsiders can’t fix the Arabian mess, just as outsiders could not have fixed the internecine Europe of four-five centuries ago with its public beheadings, burnings-alive and mass murders.

But that is not a call to inaction.

There is a United Nations doctrine of “responsibility to protect” — a doctrine Key appeared not to know of in a fumbling reply to a radio question a while back on the morality of intervention. That “R2P” doctrine calls on outsiders to do what they can to protect people against a vicious government.

As a temporary Security Council member, New Zealand has direct stewardship of that doctrine.

Protection is not just food and medicine, Labour’s alternative to military trainers. Protection is also meeting force with force. (That is why we have a police force.)

In Libya a “western” R2P intervention seemed to work but now warring factions run alternative “governments” from different cities. In the Levant and Iraq, perhaps if China sent in a million or two of troops, they could impose peace — but what would happen after they left?

No country claiming to be a good global citizen can ignore ISIL’s atrocities. So Key is required to act. His problem is that his country can’t agree what to do.