New Zealand lines up with Australia over preemptive military strikes

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has received guarded support from a hitherto unlikely source—New Zealand’s Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark—for his recent comments endorsing pre-emptive military strikes against a terrorist threat in neighbouring countries. After a Bush administration spokesman backed Howard’s stance as legitimate for “self-defence”, Clark pointedly refused to criticise the Australian leader even through his remarks triggered loud protests in South East Asia.

Clark said it was important not to “jump to conclusions” about what Howard was implying. “We didn’t read what he said as evidence of any indication [he intended] to make such a strike,” she said. Clark questioned whether Howard had supported pre-emptive strikes in the Asia-Pacific region at all, claiming he had only given a heavily qualified answer to a hypothetical question.

While Clark did not openly back Howard’s comments, she did the next best thing by deliberately softening and obscuring their significance. In line with the Bush administration, Howard is pushing for changes to the UN charter to allow a far broader interpretation of pre-emptive strikes to legitimise a US invasion of Iraq as well as a more aggressive Australian role in the immediate region. Faced with protests, he did not resile from his comments.

By giving tacit support to Howard, Clark is letting it be known that New Zealand stands squarely behind Canberra and Washington in any strike against Iraq, whether it has the imprimatur of the UN or not. Her defence of Howard came just two weeks after New Zealand dispatched a naval warship and an Orion reconnaissance aircraft to join the military buildup around Iraq. At the same time, a contingent of specially trained army personnel left for Iraq to act as weapons inspectors.

The frigate Te Kaha joined a Canadian-led task force in the Gulf of Oman, which is charged with intercepting boats suspected of carrying Al Qaeda terrorists. While Clark denied that the Te Kaha would be part of any US action against Iraq, she did state, in response to a parliamentary question, that the Orion and the frigate would remain on duty even if the US attacked Iraq without UN endorsement.

Clark’s backers in the media were in no doubt about what the Te Kaha’s dispatch signalled. The Dominion Post affirmed the government’s right to send troops overseas wherever and whenever it saw fit, advising only that Clark “spare us the spin”. Its editorial, headed “Te Kaha no beacon of neutrality,” pointed out that the Gulf of Oman was the only waterway linking Iraq’s ports to the outside world. Thus, the deployment would inevitably be interpreted—no matter what Clark asserted in her press statements— as New Zealand having “joined the build-up against Iraq”.

Just over two months ago, New Zealand sided with European governments against any unilateral US strike on Iraq—a stance that caused some concern in ruling circles. The Clark government categorically stated that it would not join an attack on Iraq, particularly without UN approval. It declared that, as a small country, its interests depended on the “international rule of law” administered by the UN.

At the time, government spokesmen went to some lengths to distinguish Wellington’s position from that of Canberra. Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff declared that Australia was “generally more ready than other countries to automatically support the US” but this was not the “New Zealand way”. New Zealand might be a small country, he said, but it wasn’t a “clone of any other nation... We are sovereign, we are fiercely independent, we make our decisions”.

By early October, the government’s stance began to change. Reports started to emerge that New Zealand was about to be penalised in trade negotiations with the US because of its long-standing anti-nuclear policy. Deputy Prime Minster Michael Cullen revealed that during discussions in Washington, the Bush administration appeared to have changed its previous stance of “separating trade and security issues”.

Cullen denied being told directly that New Zealand would not get a free-trade pact if it maintained its policy of banning nuclear-armed ships from docking in New Zealand. But, he said, it was one reason “why they would deal with Australia first”. The completion of a free trade deal with the US—and not being sidelined by Australia—is regarded as a priority in New Zealand business circles. The US is the country’s second biggest trading partner after Australia, with current exports totalling about $4 billion. A free trade agreement is estimated to be worth an extra $1 billion.

On November 15, three days after the Te Kaha left for duty, a high-ranking US trade official suddenly announced that the door was open for a trade deal. The Bush administration declared that it would seek the views of the US Congress on an agreement with New Zealand as it moved forward with the Australian discussions. A former Washington trade counsellor said the decision put a US-New Zealand deal “on the table” and that New Zealand would now be riding “in Australia’s slip-stream”.

A week later, when Goff was summoned to meet with the US Charge d’Affairs in Wellington, the Labour government was no longer forswearing involvement in a war against Iraq. While protesting that the government would still prefer to operate under a UN mandate, Goff acknowledged the US position that “only the credible threat of force and serious consequences are likely to elicit Iraqi co-operation and compliance”.

He responded to the US request for a potential contribution to a war against Iraq positively, promising at least “humanitarian, medical and logistical support”. The same week, the government concretely strengthened its military ties with Washington by granting the US Air Force permission to establish a high frequency radio transmitter for military communications and co-ordination on the South Island.

While the size of New Zealand’s military contribution may be tiny, its political support for an attack on Iraq is important to the Bush administration in conditions where it can, to date, only count on the active backing of a handful of countries. By supporting the US subjugation of Iraq, Clarke not only has her eye on a free trade agreement with Washington. Like Howard, she understands that the invasion will legitimise the use of military might by smaller powers to advance their own interests—in the case of New Zealand in the politically volatile island states of the South Pacific.