Key eyes war with caution

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 14:53 09/11/2014
John Key
CAUTION: Prime Minister John Key.

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Winston Peters and the American military have something in common. They both love a bit of Hollywood.

OPINION: The Americans can't resist giving a theatrical flourish to military operations - hence Operation Inherent Resolve, the name given to the latest action in Iraq and Syria. It conveys a sense of unwavering determination among America and its allies to be in Iraq for the long haul. Given that the Iraqi conflict has now clocked up a decade-plus, unwavering resolve will be required in spades should it drag on another decade, as it easily could.

Peters is being similarly Hollywood with his claim that New Zealand is at war after John Key's announcement of military trainers in Iraq. Peters must have missed the bit in Key's speech where he was careful to peg any contribution to a specific invitation from the Iraqi Government.

It also wildly overstates the contribution of an - apparently - small group of military trainers who, according to Key, will never set foot on the battlefield.

"Apparently" is the operative word because the details provided on New Zealand's contribution are still sketchy. That may largely be down to a technicality - Australian troops were forced to spend two months cooling their heels in the region till legal issues were resolved between Canberra and Baghdad.

But till the Government is able or willing to flesh out this week's announcement, a healthy dose of scepticism must remain.

Key insists, however, that any contribution will be limited to operating "behind the wire", and in the classroom. Like Waiouru, but in Iraq, Key explained - seemingly without irony.

Key has walked a careful line on the shape of New Zealand's eventual contribution, however.

The buildup over previous weeks suggested we may take a bigger role. Key's carefully staggered hints about there being a moral imperative to join the war seemed increasingly like a softening-up exercise. The ham- fisted way in which it emerged the chief of defence had attended a war room briefing attended by United States President Barack Obama suggested that plans were well under way. But, given the eventual nature of New Zealand's contribution, our presence in Washington seems to have been largely token - a bit like New Zealand's contribution to Inherent Resolve. Having mulled the response for weeks, Key is noticeably less gung-ho than our closest neighbour Australia, with its deployment of fighter jets and 200 SAS.

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There has always been scepticism about whether the rapid warming in defence relations between New Zealand and the US under Key is a return to a de facto military alliance. Key's response to Iraq was always going to be a test of the boundaries of that new relationship. A boots- and-all approach would have given weight to the suspicions of his opponents that the NZ was back in Anzus.

But, in positioning New Zealand at the modest end of the international response, Key has instead been careful to keep us at arm's length from our traditional allies - the US, Australia, and Britain.

Close, but not too close, is the read-out intended by his speech this week.

Admittedly, Key's options on Iraq would always be more limited than those of our trans-Tasman partner.

Any reading of the US Department of Defence daily briefings shows the extent to which this latest US-led response is being carried out by air. Combat troops are not in the mix.

Since we don't have an air- strike capability, Key had very few cards to play. But that is not the same as having no cards. The Special Air Service was highly valued by the US in Afghanistan. Presumably it would have been similarly valued in Iraq alongside the Australians and other nations.

If Key had wanted an easy way to show willing in the spirit of the new defence relationship, deploying the SAS would have been the obvious choice.

In choosing not to deploy it, two issues were probably top of mind for Key.

There is little public appetite for New Zealand to sign up to another war without apparent end. Afghanistan and its deadly toll are still fresh in people's minds. Deploying the SAS to Iraq, with its confusing welter of warring factions, would seem even more futile.

It would also have aligned us much more closely with Australia, Britain and the US, at a time when we are poised to take up a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

We won that seat with an overwhelming mandate on the back of our independent foreign policy stance.

A decade ago National's former defence spokesman Simon Power apologised after proclaiming in a speech "where Britain, the United States and Australia go, we go".

It may not have been party policy but it was the prevailing thinking within much of the National Party at that time.

Key's speech this week was a reminder that a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.

- The Dominion Post

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