Why NZ won’t quit the Middle East

New Zealand is not going to completely quit its military engagement in the Middle East, just as in the past the region always found a way to reappear on our Defence Department's radar, writes Victoria University of Wellington's Robert Ayson.

New Zealand’s three parts Indo-Pacific and one part Middle East readout from Ron Mark’s recent meeting in Washington will have been music to his counterpart’s ears. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who visited Auckland last year, wants the Indo-Pacific to be the main focus for America’s forces. This means concentrating on China and Russia – well actually China. Which means attaching a lesser priority to non-state threats like the Taliban, ISIS, and al-Shabab in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Freshly depicted by the Pentagon as one of America’s “closest and most reliable partners,” New Zealand appears to be seeking a similar transition. Seven months ago, Mark joined Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters in announcing that New Zealand’s training deployment at Taji base in Iraq would be reduced to 45 personnel at the start of 2020 and come to an end a few months thereafter. New Zealand’s Afghanistan deployment, which began 18 years ago, will not be ending quite so soon. But at barely a dozen personnel it hardly has the look of a steep ongoing commitment.

Withdrawing forces from one part of the world does not necessarily mean engagement in another. But in explaining New Zealand’s avoidance of a longer military role in Iraq with either NATO or the European Union, the Defence Minister told Radio New Zealand in August that “we see our focus being back more in the Pacific, the Pacific Rim, South East Asia, those traditional spaces.” That’s what the Obama Administration used to call a pivot, and it could come in handy with a general election looming. But there are several reasons why it’s not going to be as easy as it sounds for New Zealand to make the switch.

One of them is a demand problem. In 2003, John Howard suggested that Australia’s new commitment in Solomon Islands ruled out a larger military role in Iraq. In 2020 a similarly convenient excuse eludes Ardern’s government. The last brand new South Pacific stabilisation mission involving New Zealand (and usual partner Australia) was the brief deployment to Tonga in 2006. And the military element of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands was wound up in 2013.

Things are even quieter on that front in South East Asia. The NZDF’s East Timor experience, which ended in 2012, remains a lonely exception to the rule of no interventions in ASEAN’s neck of the woods. And New Zealand’s early commitment soon after the Australian-led Interfet mission was established in 1999 is a telling contrast with today. At one point over one thousand New Zealand military personnel were deployed in and around Timor Leste. But as this post was being written, the homepage of the NZDF website advised that “There are currently around 250 NZDF personnel serving on 11 operations overseas.”

The list of those mainly small deployments confirms the paucity of current missions closer to home. And even if that situation was suddenly to change, New Zealand might not have to make a choice at the Middle East’s expense. Last year’s Cabinet paper surveying New Zealand’s options in Iraq, which included working with NATO and the EU, stipulates that “None of the options articulated above would prevent New Zealand from independently deploying to the Pacific should an emergency arise…All deployment numbers identified are sustainable and would also not impact negatively on our increasing training support to the Pacific.”

This means that there is some baloney hiding in New Zealand’s Indo-Pacific military sandwich. And the same may also be true for Esper’s vision. His boss is the second President in a row who has tried to bring the American military back from the Middle East. And like Obama’s surge, Trump finds himself doing a bit more in Iraq in order to leave.

The history of New Zealand’s military engagement in the Middle East also paints a picture of frequent, if not continuous, engagement.

Trump’s dream of disentanglement may be a mirage. It’s not just that some of America’s enemies, including Iran, are in Middle East conflict zones. Leading regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, want Washington to stay. His evangelical base hardly wants out and it’s not easy for American policy planners to cede the great power running to Russia. Whoever is elected - or reelected - on the first Tuesday in November is bound to face a Middle East crisis at some inconvenient moment of their presidency that is impossible for America to ignore.

The history of New Zealand’s military engagement in the Middle East also paints a picture of frequent, if not continuous, engagement. Our support for Britain’s effort in the first and second world wars included combat contributions in the Middle East and North Africa. Wellington’s focus certainly shifted away from the Mediterranean once the Cold War spread to Asia. New Zealand forces began deploying to Malaya in 1949, and would soon work with the United States in the Korean War and later in Vietnam.

But the Middle East would find a way to reappear on New Zealand’s radar. With the superpowers wielding their veto powers at the Security Council, a compromise was found in the form of UN peacekeeping. And many of these missions were Middle Eastern ones. New Zealand has been involved with one of these, the Multinational Force and Observers Group, for what is now nearly a 40-year commitment.

And then there are the coalitions of the willing which have provided New Zealand opportunities to burnish its alliance credentials and test the defence force. We don’t take all these opportunities, as the Clark government’s 2003 decision on the Iraq invasion demonstrates. And our Middle East military connection is not as strong as Australia’s. Unlike the Morrison government New Zealand has not sent forces to the Strait of Hormuz. That’s a politically convenient decision made easier by the unavailability of the frigates. But that brings us to the combat capabilities that Ron Mark insists are a priority.

Just because a smoker temporarily cuts back to a few cigarettes a day doesn’t mean they’re about to quit.

There aren’t too many likely South Pacific contingencies where the only thing that will do the job is a frigate or an anti-submarine warfare aircraft. You might say that these would come into their own closer to East Asia, in conjunction with the United States and Australia. But that means proving ourselves as a partner and ally against China. In a big crisis, let alone a real conflict, that could be a strategic nightmare for Wellington.

A complete shift to an Indo-Pacific strategy could be beyond the price any government is willing to pay. New Zealand may sometimes find it easier to demonstrate its commitment to international security by involving itself in multinational missions in the Middle East. As well as peacekeeping opportunities in that part of the world, treading the well-worn path of deploying a surface combatant or surveillance aircraft to that region may appeal to future cabinets.

Recently released Cabinet papers show officials arguing in September that New Zealand’s involvement in the Australian-led command team for Combined Task Force based in Bahrain was “a commitment to cooperating with a network of partners to counter transnational threats which erode the international rules-based order.” That’s not going to be the last time that logic of engagement is used.

New Zealand isn’t really leaving the Middle East. We’re simply reducing our current investment there. Just because a smoker temporarily cuts back to a few cigarettes a day doesn’t mean they’re about to quit.

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