Because ministers are still on holiday while tensions mount in the Middle East and Donald Trump threatens to emulate the Teleban by destroying Iranian cultural centres, the question of whether New Zealand will hasten the withdrawal of around 45 troops still in Iraq has yet to be unambiguously answered.
More critically, how the Ardern government will balance foreign policy interests that have become conflicted is open to conjecture, too.
Perhaps our leaders think everything will be sorted out by the time they get back to their desks in Wellington.
The Beehive website tells us nothing about the government’s position on the crisis, which suggests our leaders have not met to discuss this country’s policy response.
The most recent official post – on January 5 – records Defence Minister Ron Mark announcing three Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopters and crew, two NZ Army Combat Engineer Sections and “a command element” are being sent to support the Australian Defence Force efforts in tackling the Australian fires.
Nothing from Foreign Minister Winston Peters has been posted since 14 December, when he announced New Zealand will contribute NZ$1 million of funding towards the joint United Nations Fund for Children and World Health Organisation Pacific Regional Action Plan for Measles.
This is not to say Peters is unaware that the Americans launched a drone strike to assassinate Iranian major general Qassem Soleimani, Iran is threatening retribution and Iraq’s parliament wants all foreign troops to leave. This implies New Zealand troops in Iraq are no longer welcome.
Presumably in response to media questioning, Peter has called for restraint and de-escalation as tensions rise.
He acknowledged the American government’s “strong” concerns around Iran.
“We were not advised of the US strikes in advance of their occurrence. The US took action on the basis of information they had,” he said.
He said the so-called global coalition (the group of countries working together to defeat ISIS)
” … has worked very hard for its achievements … it is important that these gains are preserved and consolidated, not undermined”.
“We view very seriously any threats to deployed coalition members, including New Zealand diplomatic staff and military personnel. Recent attacks on coalition bases and embassies constitute unacceptable risks to their safety.”
“We continue to keep the security situation under close review, including implications for New Zealand personnel.”
In contrast to Peters’ concerns, Trump is obviously delighted with how things are turning out and the role he played in Soleimani’s murder. He brayed that – under his direction – the major general was killed by a “flawless precision strike”.
He accused Soleimani of plotting “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomat and military personnel”, but because of his track record as a serial liar, this should be treated with some scepticism.
Alas, he is also is bully (imposing or threatening to impose economic sanctions to force dissenting countries into submission to the will of his administration). And if you do support him, he is capable of betrayal (as America’s Kurdish allies in fighting against ISIS in Syria found when it suited Trump to do Turkey a favour).
His caprice and Iran’s thirst for vengeance have raised the danger level in the region.
They also complicate New Zealand’s relations with the US, the Middle East and – potentially – the European Union. European leaders are sorting out how to respond after its Middle East strategy was further undermined by the US airstrike along with its campaign to keep the 2015 Iran nuclear accord together after Trump pulled the US out in 2018.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has strongly advised New Zealanders travelling in Iraq to leave.
According to Stuff, basing its report on material from RNZ, MFAT says Iraq is volatile and an unpredictable security situation, with an ongoing threat of terrorism, violent extremism and organised crime.
Iran has threatened retaliation against the US for the killing and there are fears for the safety of around 45 New Zealand troops who are operating in a non-combat training role at Taji Military Complex in Iraq as part of a US-led coalition to wipe out the threat from the Islamic State.
TV One reminded us that New Zealand announced its Defence Force departure from Iraq in June last year, scheduled for June this year.
“When it comes to Iraq, it’s time to go,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.
The last remaining troops in Iraq are due to return home in June.
As if to encourage our departure much sooner than that, Iraq’s Parliament has passed a resolution to
” … end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, air space or water for any reason”.
According to the Stuff report, National’s Defence spokesperson Mark Mitchell said there is still a threat from groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State so it would be wise for the government to see if the Iraqi government acted on the resolution or whether the need for global security would prevail.
He said New Zealand should not make a knee-jerk response.
“The coalition and Iraqi troops have been very successful in dismantling and removing the threat of ISIS and the caliphate,” Mitchell said.
“I’ve always felt very strongly the important part is the follow up, and this is often where we get the strategy wrong – leaving too early, the vacuum reappears and then all of a sudden we’re back in a situation where international terror and global security is a bigger issue for us again.”
RNZ yesterday reported the New Zealand Defence Force was denying reports that it is preparing a C130 Hercules to evacuate 45 defence force personnel from Camp Taji.
A defence force spokesperson said it was not actively preparing to evacuate its personnel in the region.
They say any decision to evacuate personnel will be made by the government.
But Defence Minister Ron Mark said training activities were on hold, as the focus turned to the protection of its defence force members.
He said the government, along with its coalition partners, was closely monitoring the situation and the defence force remained vigilant to any changes in the security environment.
But how will Trump respond, if NZ leaves?
He issued a threat to Baghdad after the Iraqi parliament’s resolution, saying the US would impose sanctions if its troops were forced to leave.
It’s his way of encouraging democracy. When a country tries to exercise its sovereignty and asks you to leave, you play the economic card and threaten to cripple its economy.
The Ardern government has much to consider.