A rebuttal to Victoria University Professor Robert Ayson’s essay on the deployment of NZ troops to Iraq.
Victoria University Professor Robert Ayson has written an essay justifying New Zealand’s involvement in the new war in Iraq. His essay provides a liberal cloak for more Western aggression in the Middle East, and fails to acknowledge the hypocrisy of this new pseudo-humanitarian invasion. Such apologists are comprehensible in the military or corporate setting; but as an academic Professor Ayson is ostensibly interested in truth and understanding, not propaganda.
The professor says: “…one of the reasons why the anti-ISIL military coalition that New Zealand is joining is justified is because of the challenge to nearly universal values that ISIL represents.”
The central plank of his argument is that because of the behavior of ISIL, it is OK for New Zealand to join a US-led force into Iraq. His passing nod to the 2003 war is that the US invasion helped “create some of the conditions that ISIL has taken advantage of.” But fundamentally, he simply ignores the fact that the people who are leading this military intervention are war criminals directly responsible for creating the horror that the people of Iraq are now experiencing.
From 2003 until 2011, the US invasion and occupation led the deaths of between 135,716 – 153,318 people. Nearly all of these deaths would not have occurred if the US had not invaded Iraq. No one in the US administration has been held responsible for the war or for the murders of any of these people.
A massive report on the CIA’s use of torture throughout the war has had, as yet, no effect whatsoever on changing US policy, nor resulted in the criminal investigation of anyone involved. Let us not think Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or “extraordinary rendition” as aberrations, but rather the normal course of US policy in the ‘war on terror’.
As importantly, the US has been carrying out an illegal and immoral drone war across the Middle East killing thousands of people. If we are to be indignant about the gruesome murder of Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasaesbeh then let us be equally indignant about each and everyone of the murders of children, woman and men, who are being burned to death by Hellfire missiles fired from US drones. “At least 2,464 people have now been killed by US drone strikes outside the country’s declared war zones since President Barack Obama’s inauguration six years ago,” reported the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The US creation and on-going support for a sectarian Iraqi government responsible for death squads also receives no comment from the Professor.
Professor Ayson goes on to elaborate: ‘And this brings us to the national interests that should be motivating New Zealand’s concern about ISIL internationally and its commitment to the coalition,’ where he lists six reasons why New Zealand has an interest in going to the Middle East. Tellingly, not one of those reasons is economic interest.
Instead, Professor Ayson takes us on a selective journey through New Zealand’s foreign policy history and international affairs in justifying his support of the new war.
His first point is that New Zealand has “an interest in the preservation, where it is possible, of the idea that recognized nation states (like us) retain a domestic monopoly on the use of force and that non-state groups (like ISIL) are denied that opportunity.”
Non-state groups in a civil war are exactly the people that Professor Ayson is talking about. New Zealand does not actually have some objective interest in a theoretical sense in states maintaining a monopoly on the use of force, but rather, it has an interest in states that ‘we’ like having a monopoly on the use of violence. ‘Non-state groups’ are not just ISIL, but are the Kurds, the opposition to Bashir al-Assad and the old Afghan mujahidin. They would equally well have been the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. The US government routinely funds and arms opposition groups—particularly in South American countries with left-wing leaders—often creating the very situation where such ‘non-state groups’ can effectively challenge the monopoly of violence in a given nation-state.
Ayson goes on with more false generalisatons: “A second is that we have an interest in the preservation, where it is possible, of the international boundaries which separate one nation state from another and in preventing armed groups from violating those points of demarcation. The caliphate idea of ISIL is a direct challenge to this standard.”
Preservation of boundaries in our interest, he says, yet not one word of condemnation of the Indonesian government’s acts in West Papua has ever been issued by the New Zealand government. Nor do we hear any strong diplomatic speak about illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank accompanied by violent settlers. Where is all the outrage about violations of boundaries? If ‘we’ have these ‘interests’ then why isn’t someone standing up for them? Rather it is because we in the West use such border violations as and when they suit our needs, not because of some objective interest in them.
His third point about “our awareness that an unstable Middle East, where governments fear for their continuing existence, presents particular dangers to international security,” is equally problematic. As an ostensibly democratic state, we should hope that the dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia do fear for their continued existence. They are parasitic governments that brutally repress their own populations. The sad reality is that the United States has helped these dictatorial regimes remain in power against the popular will of the people within those countries. The United States has stopped democratic movements instead favouring reactionary conservative forces across the Middle East that allow the US to continue to extract oil and maintain strategic dominance of the region. To ignore this factual reality is standing on very shaky academic ground. Yes, New Zealand has an interest in a peaceful and just world, but equating this invasion of Iraq with such an idea does not stand up to scrutiny.
The professor goes on to mistake cause and effect in saying “it is against our interests for a group such as ISIL to continue violent actions in Syria and Iraq which are then used to inspire overseas recruits and sympathisers.” It is 25 years of wars in the Middle East; it is the US hypocrisy; it is the torture; it is the intelligence services relentlessly harassing people; it is impoverishment of the mass of people by the stealing of the resources—these are the things that are the best recruitment tools for radical groups, not random violent attacks carried out by these groups.
Further, Professor Ayson naively subscribes to a simplistic view of New Zealand, and indeed all Western nation-states as having ‘collective interests’: this expression is a clever euphemism for the interests of the elite and powerful of New Zealand. The interests of the majority of people in New Zealand and the interests of those 1% who own the overwhelming majority of the wealth in this country are not one and the same. The interests of the elite are to maintain their wealth and a system that protects their wealth. That means waging war with the Americans. It also means trying to sign up to investment treaties that strip our rights while giving rights and privileges to multinational corporations to exploit workers and the environment.
The interest of the majority of people in this country is for a decent life with enough food to eat, a house to live in, a decent job, health care, education and some leisure time. There is no ‘collective interest’—there are those with money and power, and those without.
Finally, Ayson seems to be justifying the existence of the Five Eyes spying network—and New Zealand’s participation in it, ‘because of the advantages of a club to international order.’ Wow. That’s an amazing assessment of the Five Eyes; he’s worthy of a pat on the back by the intelligence services. Defending an global surveillance system that violates the privacy of every person who uses digital communication on the planet, that is manifest in New Zealand as an agency that has repeatedly violated the law and assisted in the drone assassination of one of its own citizens, in the UK as one that has spied on human rights groups and in the US as one that lied repeatedly to the elected members of Congress is pretty hard—but Ayson isn’t just defending it. He’s saying it’s good for international order.
The funny thing about Ayson’s comments is he doesn’t ever bother to say the obvious: New Zealand currently has a government that is ideologically wedded to the idea that closer ties to the United States is a good thing. They view going to war as a good way to cozy up to the United States – as Key himself said, ‘as the price of the club’ – not just the Five Eyes club – but the whole Western project: unregulated global capitalism, privatisation of public assets, and an opening up untapped ‘markets’ for New Zealand’s dairy products.
As a public academic Ayson speaking out on issues of war and peace, it would be a whole lot more useful to people if he actually tried to illuminate what was going on with Iraq, with Syria, with the United States and with New Zealand instead of regurgitating and justifying state propaganda. But as an honorary professor with the New Zealand Defence Force Command and Staff College perhaps it is too much to expect anything else.
-Valerie Morse, February 2015