19 February 2015
Most New Zealanders will have never heard of the Nairn brothers. But from 1923 until the late 1950s, these two New Zealanders operated the famous Nairn Bus to Baghdad. At the time, it was “the” way to make the 1,040 kilometres journey over often dusty desert roads from Beirut to Baghdad. While the Nairns have long since passed on, it still seems to be a case of all roads lead to Baghdad, as far is New Zealand is concerned.
Within the week, New Zealand will decide on a military deployment to Iraq to combat the rise of ISIL. Of course, no formal decision has been made as yet, but all the signs are pretty obvious, and when I overhear young soldiers at Auckland Airport talking about how exciting their role in Iraq will be, I know our forces are as good as on their way. And forget the niceties – regardless of whether they are just training advisers, or whether they are under the protection of the Iraqi armed forces, they are in fact military personnel and will thus be subject to all the perils that implies. And remember too, that the innocuous term “trainer/adviser” seldom stops there. Kennedy sent a few hundred advisers to help South Vietnam in the early 1960s – by the time the Vietnam War ended in (in American defeat) in 1975, over 210,000 young Americans and more than 220 young New Zealanders had been killed or wounded.
I have been a keen student of Middle Eastern politics since the early 1970s. The intervening years have seen massive upheaval and changes in the region, the fall of old regimes and dynasties and the rise of new ones. But no matter how the lines on maps have been drawn, or which governments have been backed by the West, and which have not, the one constant has been the failure of Western policy. Mainly, this has been the fault of the United States, although the British and the French must also take their share of culpability.
In their heyday, the Nairns had to battle all manner of political and other obstacles, from the inhospitably hot weather to the marauding intentions of hostile Bedouin tribesmen (who were even then subject to RAF bombing and strafing in Iraq). Nearly 90 years later, not a lot has changed, except that the brutality and precision intensity of weaponry has increased dramatically. ISIL and its ambition to establish a new Caliphate is hardly new either. The Rashidun Caliphate was established almost 1,400 years ago. The Ottoman Caliphate lasted from the sacking of Constantinople in 1453 until 1924. The Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries were Christian Europe’s first ultimately unsuccessful response to the rise of Islam. ISIL, whatever one thinks of its depraved brutality, is the modern expression of those traditions. History suggests it is not going to be bombed or blasted away.
I oppose New Zealand becoming militarily involved in the ISIL campaign for one simple reason – it will not work. In doing so, I am not condoning ISIL’s atrocities or barbarism in any way. But external intervention as now proposed will be ultimately unsuccessful and much innocent blood on all sides will be spilled in the process. Whether or not ISIL’s desire to establish the new Caliphate succeeds depends far less on the exercise of external military might than it does on the support of the people in the region to let it happen.
So any intervention we feel obliged to make should be at the diplomatic and humanitarian aid ends of the spectrum, working with and alongside local people to strengthen civil society. And if the international system is to count for anything (and given our role on the UN Security Council should we not be doing our best to ensure it does?) any such action should be under a UN Mandate.
We can hardly expect others to play by the international rules, if we are not prepared to do so ourselves.