If Bill English wasn’t preparing to enjoy his retirement and was instead getting stuck into his first full term as Prime Minister, it is almost certain that his government would be planning to extend its military contribution in Iraq. National's decision might have been broadly predictable, but the same cannot be said for Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led coalition. What the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues choose to do on Iraq presents a series of challenges in the weighing of international and domestic expectations.
The latter are not to be sniffed at. When John Key finally announced in February 2015 that New Zealand would send forces to join their Australian counterparts at Taji, Labour’s leader of the time Andrew Little was quick to oppose that decision. When the mission was renewed in mid-2016, Labour and its two current political partners – New Zealand First and the Greens - all indicated that they did not support an extension of New Zealand's military presence.
His New Zealand First boss also seems a very likely supporter of extension. As Foreign Minister, Peters will be keenly aware of Australia's interest in seeing New Zealand commit to a further six months and more. Having brokered the photo opportunity for Jacinda Ardern and Julie Bishop as a sign that the new government values good trans-Tasman relations, Peters is not going to let the Iraq issue get in the way of that progress. And the fact that a decision to extend the mission will put the Greens in an uncomfortable spot will be a happy bonus.
The Australia factor is the most important international dimension to this issue for New Zealand. When Canberra was trying to encourage Wellington to participate in Iraq, it initially pitched a combined deployment under the Anzac label, something that was even too much of a stretch for Mr. Key. But the fact that the Australian government had to invest additional financial and personnel resources to make New Zealand's participation possible means that there are sunk costs on both sides of the Tasman. And the glowing comments that the Turnbull government made about New Zealand in its 2016 Defence White Paper owed a good deal to its appreciation for New Zealand's commitment in Iraq.
But if the original reason for the deployment has ceased with the defeat of ISIS, on what grounds is the presence to be justified? Will an extended mission see New Zealand troops take on something more than simply training their Iraqi counterparts? These questions need to be asked, and answered, by both Australian and New Zealand decision-makers if any extensions are to be agreed.
We can be certain that if Jacinda Ardern announces that New Zealand will extend its mission she will not use the “price of the club" argument which landed John Key in political hot water. Explaining New Zealand's involvement as a consequence of its five eyes connections would be exactly the message that would fire up opposition from the Greens and the Labour left.
The Prime Minister and her colleagues already have a track record of going against the tide of opinion within their supporters. The new government found a way of massaging its pre-election opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership by endorsing a modestly transformed Comprehensive and Progressive TPP, and claiming that it had gained significant concessions for New Zealand in the process.
But the Iraq decision is a more difficult test. Unlike the TPP, where significant parts of New Zealand’s business community have been strong supporters, there is no comparable domestic constituency for the Iraq deployment. Labour has also achieved domestic standing for its approach to free-trade agreements: after all it was during Helen Clark’s premiership that the agreement with China was completed. But on Iraq, Labour's domestic main legacy is Clark’s decision that New Zealand would not join US, British and Australian forces in the 2003 invasion.
This raises an obvious challenge for the government if it does choose to extend. How does it show this choice is consistent with an independent foreign policy? Labour may think it owns that concept by virtue of its nuclear free push in the 1980s. Will Ardern be tempted to repeat the Key-English argument that New Zealand has made its own (i.e. “independent”) choice to work with traditional partners in Iraq? That will hardly convince many of the people who brought her to office.
Perhaps the Ardern government will find a way of repackaging New Zealand's commitment. Iraq's government needs tens of billions of dollars for reconstruction after the violence that was required to expel ISIS. Back in 2015, the Labour Party wanted New Zealand to provide humanitarian aid to refugees rather than send military trainers. Could that be a model here? Perhaps Ardern might declare that this is the very last extension of New Zealand's military presence and that over the next six months Wellington would transition by beefing up its humanitarian contribution?
Those alternatives might satisfy some of Ardern’s supporters, but they would still have New Zealand walking away from a collaborative military mission with its only formal ally. Something tells us that in the end New Zealand’s most important international relationship will take priority over domestic sentiment, but this will make it harder for the new government to demonstrate that it brings a fresh approach to New Zealand’s foreign and defence policy.
Image credit: screenshot from Iraqi TV, from Hon. Ron Mark's Facebook page.