Editorial: Key's carefully pragmatic line

19:08, Nov 05 2014

A major question that Prime Minister John Key and the Cabinet will have addressed as they considered what commitment New Zealand should make to the international fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in the last few weeks is how much the conflict affects or could affect us.

The answer given by the Prime Minister in a rare speech on national security issues yesterday was that it does affect New Zealand. But the effect is limited and the commitment we should make should be limited too. The responses outlined the Prime Minister were typically careful, measured and pragmatic. They were tailored, as he said, to be in keeping with the independent line and the principles the country has generally taken in foreign policy for nearly two decades or more.

On the uppermost question of direct military involvement, the Prime Minister ruled out any fighting role for New Zealand soldiers, whether regular forces people or the Special Air Service. The Prime Minister said that New Zealand would look into the practicalities of assisting in building the capability and capacity of Iraqi forces, but he declared that would only be done if our defence people and the Government were satisfied that we could carry out the task safely and securely.

In the insistence on that requirement, New Zealand's military commitment would be less than that it has made in other areas, such as Afghanistan and Timor Leste. It is, however, a requirement that most New Zealanders would agree with. The Iraqi battlefield on which Isil is fighting is remote and extremely hazardous. Any commitment of fighting troops would make little military difference and would expose our forces to large risks for very little, or no, gain.

In his speech, the Prime Minister acknowledged that discussions with New Zealand's partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing relationship had informed the Government's decision-making. He also, however, made a point of emphasising that membership of Five Eyes does not compromise New Zealand's policy independence, as critics of Five Eyes have alleged. Whatever inducements have been applied to the Government - and there is no evidence there were any - that would seem to be borne out by the limited actions it has taken against Isil, which are far short of those taken by the other partners, the United States, Australia, Canada and Britain, who have all taken more direct fighting roles.

Isil's activities would scarcely be of any concern to New Zealand, of course, were it not for its capacity to attract followers to its cause and raise the possibility that its vile brutality could be enacted against innocent victims here. The Prime Minister revealed yesterday that the security agencies have 30 to 40 people on a watch list as people who are of concern as foreign fighters, with another 30 to 40 under investigation. Although the number is higher than many people might have thought, the Prime Minister was careful not to be alarmist about it. It would be irresponsible, however, to ignore it.

The modest measures increasing the Security Intelligence Services' capacity to carry out video surveillance, lengthening the period for which passports may be cancelled, allowing for short-term emergency moves to be taken to conduct an investigation, and so on strike the right balance between giving effective powers to the authorities without unduly infringing individuals' rights. They are properly hedged with safeguards and are in any case interim measures before the full-scale review of security legislation next year.

Over the last few weeks, the Government has been criticised for the time it has taken to decide on New Zealand's role against Isil and its followers. Some critics have suggested it was softening the country up for something unpleasant and potentially unpopular. The well-weighed measures announced yesterday show it was in fact giving careful and thoughtful consideration to a uniquely difficult problem.

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