New Zealand: Labour Government’s fake opposition to the Iraq war

It seems such a short time ago that Helen Clark and her colleagues in the New Zealand Labour Government were being widely praised for their bold stand against the US-led invasion of Iraq. Only last month, New Zealand’s ambassador to the UN was condemning the rush to abandon diplomacy in favour of military action as a means of dealing with Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. The ambassador stated that New Zealand would not be a party to any intervention that did not have the explicit backing of the UN Security Council.

Yet now that US forces have claimed "victory" and moved in to occupy Baghdad, all the talk is of New Zealand’s "vital role" in aiding the so-called democratic reconstruction of Iraq. Suddenly all the New Zealand newspaper editorials are no longer filled with criticisms of George W. Bush and Tony Blair – now all of the emphasis is on the need for our government to get on side with the US so that we can play a positive role in bringing order and stability to the Middle East region.

One example of this sudden about-face was the enormous political and media controversy that followed a comment made by the Prime Minister several weeks ago to the effect that the US would never have gone to war with Iraq if Al Gore had won the last presidential election. Business leaders and journalists in the corporate media claimed that senior members of the Bush Administration had been highly offended by the remarks, and that unless a full retraction and public apology was tendered immediately New Zealand could kiss goodbye to any chance of a bilateral free trade agreement with the US. Only later, after Helen Clark had already issued an official apology in which she expressed "regret" if her comments had caused anyone to take offence, was it revealed (in an article in the Sunday Star Times dated 13 April) that in all probability the demand for an apology came not from the Whitehouse but rather from senior officials working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

That the NZ government should be so sensitive to these sorts of criticisms however proves at least one thing – their original opposition to a war with Iraq, far from being a principled stand, was in fact purely the result of political expediency.

A question of motives

As Helen Clark herself put it in an address to the ICFTU World Women’s Conference in Melbourne on 18 February this year, Labour’s preference for conducting all international military and diplomatic operations under the auspices of the UN is linked to its "…support for a strong rules based international order [which] also extends to the areas of the environment, disarmament and trade." This includes bodies such as International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The reality is that the Labour Government’s commitment to the principles of multilateralism and working through the UN is not the result of some high-minded humanitarian ethos but rather stems from a desire not to undermine the very institutions which guarantee profitability and access for New Zealand companies to overseas markets. The decision to send a New Zealand frigate and SAS troops to the Middle East to take part in ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ has to be viewed not just in the context of the "war on terrorism" (which was a farce anyway to begin with), but also in terms of maintaining the conditions for free market capitalism to flourish.

In addition to hunting down alleged al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives in the Persian Gulf, one of the duties of the Maritime Interdiction Operation Group (to which both the New Zealand frigate Te Kaha and its sister ship Te Mana have been assigned) is to keep the sea lanes clear for Western shipping, including not only vessels belonging to the major oil companies like Chevron Texaco and British Petroleum but also US navy troop transports and supply ships. When questioned over this matter in parliament by Green MP Keith Locke, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Phil Goff, was quoted as saying that he "could not confirm whether these [US navy] vessels could have been carrying war materials to be used against Iraq".

Most working New Zealanders would probably be extremely alarmed if they knew that the country’s involvement in Operation Enduring Freedom is also currently being used as a bargaining chip in negotiations for a free trade deal with the United States.

In a leaked memo dated 29 October 2002, the New Zealand Consul General in Los Angeles brazenly stated that "throughout the past century, New Zealand has worked closely with the US in all important walks of life…We have fought alongside the US in all major conflicts against tyranny and oppression, most recently against terrorism in Afghanistan. A US/NZ Free Trade Agreement is a further positive and logical step in this close and cooperative relationship" (see the full document at This tangible link between our government’s foreign policy and its free market economic policies gives a new and more sinister meaning to the mission statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which includes the goal of "developing New Zealand’s international relationships in a way that is good for business".

Imperialism by any other name

When examining the justifications currently being put forward for why New Zealand should send troops to be part of a possible UN peacekeeping mission in post-war Iraq, it is worthwhile bringing up the example of East Timor – where New Zealand and Australian forces intervened in 1999 under a UN mandate.

In December, last year, we wrote in the Socialist Voice, in an article dealing with an outbreak of violence and mass looting in the East Timorese capital Dili:

"Even though East Timor is now a sovereign nation, liberation from Indonesian rule has not brought about any considerable economic change for the East Timorese population. The gap between a tiny elite of government officials, UN staff and a few businessmen on the one hand, and the rest of the population on the other, remains huge. Unemployment is at between 70 and 80 percent…Furthermore, popular confidence and trust in the police authority remains very low, since large parts of the police force have links to the notorious Indonesian militia that was responsible for numerous atrocities against the population in the lead-up to independence…"

Word for word, this is the exact same fate which the Iraqi people are faced with now – having been ‘liberated’ from the rule of a brutal dictator only to suffer a new form of colonial oppression. While some on the Left (such as the Green Party) have advocated as a solution the handing over of power from the US military to an "interim" UN administration, the experience of East Timor demonstrates that even in the case of a so-called "humanitarian intervention", the interests of the local population are scarcely taken into account. As the West Indian-born writer, and fighter for African liberation, Frantz Fanon, put it: "The UN has never been capable of settling a single one of the problems raised before the conscience of man…The partitions, the controlled joint commissions, the trusteeship arrangements are international means of torturing, of crushing the will to independence of people, of cultivating anarchy, banditry and wretchedness."

Broadening the anti-war movement

However, unlike those groups claiming to stand in the revolutionary Marxist tradition who merely rail against the inadequacies of the UN, we in Socialist Alternative realise that to gain the support of working class and young people in the struggle against war and imperialism we have to link the actions of the New Zealand government in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world with the basic bread-and-butter issues that are of direct concern to people in New Zealand/Aotearoa today.

Because the same agenda that is at work in plundering the wealth of countries like Iraq and East Timor is also the one that is busy attacking jobs and undermining public services at home. For instance, at the moment the New Zealand government is taking part in negotiations over implementing the latest phase of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). New Zealand has already made some of the most extensive commitments to free trade and privatisation of any advanced capitalist nation – now in the wake of the last World Trade Organisation summit in Doha core public services such as healthcare and education are to open up to the private sector as well. While Trade Negotiation Minister Jim Sutton has dismissed as "scare mongering" the possibility that New Zealand will be affected by any of these proposed changes, the fact remains that under GATS regulations all countries are required to make further commitments to trade liberalisation during each round of negotiations.

Clearly, the "strong ruled based international order" that is represented by bodies like the UN and the WTO is incapable of delivering peace and justice for the workers and youth of NZ/Aotearoa – let alone the oppressed peoples living in Iraq and other countries in the so-called "developing world". However, the solution to war and poverty does indeed lie in adopting a broader international perspective – just not the one that Helen Clark and her friends in the Labour Party advocate. Instead of trusting everything to international diplomacy and the free play of market forces, we need to fight for democratic working class control over the major banks and corporations – including those operating in the oil industry – as well as solidarity with the oppressed people of Iraq in their struggle against imperialism. In order to do this though we must first build a strong socialist current within the wider working class and progressive movement, capable of uniting the layers of grassroots activists and militant workers and providing an alternative to the false leadership of the official Labour politicians. That is why we would encourage people to seriously consider getting involved with Socialist Alternative, and our international tendency, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), which campaigns for socialism in over 35 countries worldwide.

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May 2003