Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: NZ’s fraught balancing act on Syria bombing

Dr Bryce Edwards.

Should New Zealand be giving support to Trump’s military intervention in the Middle East? New Zealand politicians and commentators are very divided on what the best course of action is. So far, the Government has tried to take a middle path, being highly diplomatic in its response to the US-UK-France bombing of Syria, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying that she “accepts” what has happened.

This very deliberate use of the word “accepts” is designed to be ambiguous. It can be taken as support for the bombings. On the other hand, Ardern has also couched her “acceptance” of the attacks within broader statements about the need for a UN-mandated approach to the civil war in Syria. Her comments fall well short of other countries who have more clearly sided with Trump, Macron and May.

Nonetheless, this middling approach has produced criticisms from both sides of politics. And as the conflict continues, these hard criticisms suggest that Ardern may be forced to “get off the fence”.

The leftwing criticisms of Ardern’s approach

Chris Trotter, writes in The Press today that “New Zealand’s prime minister has chosen to talk out of both sides of her mouth”, and risks running foul of Aesop’s famous dictum that “He who tries to please everybody, ends up pleasing nobody” – see: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has a bob each way on bombing Syria.

Trotter’s strong preference would have been for Ardern to have taken a principled stand against what he sees as the West’s illegal and disastrous military intervention in a region that has already been badly destabilised by a century of imperialism. He outlines an alternative course of action New Zealand could have taken, which he argues would have been more effective and morally superior. He concludes that “An opportunity to assume moral leadership and demonstrate political courage has been heedlessly squandered.”

Also critical of Ardern’s statement is former Green MP Keith Locke, who contrasts the stance to Helen Clark distancing herself from the US invasion of Iraq: “In some ways Ardern’s comments are a step back from the stance of the Clark Labour government in 2003, when the Bush administration didn’t wait for weapons inspectors to complete their work before it invaded Iraq. But at least Helen Clark didn’t support that invasion” – see: Ardern wrong to “accept” US-led air strikes on Syria. The Greens get it right.

Locke also points out that other leftwing parties such as the British Labour Party are firmly opposed to the bombings. And in fact, “Ardern’s support for the bombing won’t meet much favour when she arrives in Britain shortly. Most parties (Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and the Greens) have come out against the air strikes.”

Leftwing blogger Steven Cowan also argues Ardern is undermining New Zealand’s so-called independent foreign policy, and is simply making this country “a pawn in the grand game of imperialism” – see: Jacinda Ardern: Supporting American militarism. Cowan says Ardern’s careful wording in response to the air strikes amounts to support: “She couldn’t quite manage to say that she supported it – perhaps she thought that might offend some of her liberal supporters – but, semantics aside, that’s what she meant when he said that she accepted the ‘reasons’ for the military strike.”

But another blogger on the left, Martyn Bradbury, completely disagrees with this, and argues Ardern was merely stating a fact: “Jacinda ‘accepts’ the US attacked Syria the same way we ‘accept’ the sun will come up tomorrow – there was an inevitability to Trump’s violence. That’s not collusion, that’s a diplomatic statement of reality” – see: Painting Jacinda out as a war criminal.

Bradbury also quips, “I don’t see Jacinda’s diplomacy as grounds to put her in front of a UN war crimes tribunal, although if we did, Golriz [Ghahraman] would be a great lawyer for her.”

But it’s not only the “far left” criticising the Government for being too soft on the western intervention in Syria. The Labour Party’s Greg Presland says: “New Zealand has not provided that ringing endorsement [desired by Trump] although has gone quite close in the language used” – see: The Government’s response to the Syrian crisis. He condemns the bombings, saying “the attack is unjustified. The United Nations and all of the related entities are there to ensure that these sorts of issues are dealt with in a civilised way.  The OPCW should have been allowed to inspect and report back.  Bombing the sites is tantamount to obstruction of justice.”

And despite the Government’s ambiguous “acceptance” of the bombing raids, the Greens have come out in condemnation, with Golriz Ghahraman stating that “The airstrikes must be seen for what they are: a continuation of a policy that protects American and western interests and a breach of international law” – see: Bombing Syria will never bring peace. NZ must stand up against ad hoc violence. She claims the bombings will worsen the situation for Syrians, prolonging the conflict, and says “What New Zealand can do is never support any nation on the East/West divide who sponsors violence.”

The rightwing criticisms of Ardern’s approach

Many on the political right believe that Ardern should have shown much greater support for the US-led bombings. Some of this criticism focuses on Ardern’s appeal to use the UN to resolve the issue. Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking says the UN has been a failure, questioning “just how many kids people like Assad have to kill with gas and nerve agent and chlorine before they wake up and realise the United Nations is, has and won’t be doing anything to stop it” – see: Diplomacy is a failed strategy.

The National Party, too, thinks the Prime Minister is being too soft. Leader Simon Bridges has said “I think it could be a bit stronger – these words do matter in foreign affairs”, and “if you look at what Australia’s said, Turnbull, actually Trudeau, one of our best mates, they’ve all said they support, they strongly support” – see Dan Satherley’s NZ should support US-led strikes on Syria, UN is useless – Simon Bridges.

This report says that Bridges “stopped short of saying he’d offer to put Kiwi troops on the ground if the US requested it”, and he admitted: “I think the honest truth is I just don’t know.”

According to the Herald, Bridges also wasn’t necessarily saying “that New Zealand should go where the US went”, saying, “We do have to have an independent foreign policy” – see: NZ should have been stronger on Syrian strikes, says Bridges.

The same article cites Bridges’ suspicion that the Government’s approach is being influenced by diplomacy and trade ties with Russia: “You also feel the hand of Russia in all of this and we know that our Government’s had a pretty weird response on that.”

Bridges’ statements about a stronger response also seem out of line with National’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Todd McClay, who backed up Ardern, saying “The government has made a strong statement and the National Party supports that” – see RNZ: National supports PM’s ‘strong statement’ on chemical warfare.

For two newspaper editorials on the subject today, see the Herald’s Has West made its message clear on chemical weapons?, which says New Zealand should “unequivocally support” the bombings, and the Otago Daily Times, which outlines how New Zealand “has followed the line of countries like Brazil, Peru and Argentina, nations which have looked towards the United Nations Security Council to find a way to prevent the escalation of military conflict in Syria” – see: A red line against chemical warfare.

Finally, Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien is also disappointed by Jacinda Ardern’s ambiguous position on Syria, and puts forward the case for and against supporting military intervention – see: PM’s position firmly on the fence isn’t good enough. Her conclusion? “None of this is particularly bad – it’s just so, so far from good.”

Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.