Hard News by Russell Brown

Extreme Pragmatism

So, are we in on Iraq or not? Opposition parties have been united this week in seeing the decision to send a New Zealand frigate to help with anti-terrorist surveillance in the Mediterranean as joining the war on Iraq by the back door. For the Greens this is a bad thing, for Act and National it's a good thing.

But there is another - more likely - explanation for this week's announcement by the Prime Minister, one which involves neither wholehearted support for the Orwellian push on Iraq, or a principled rejection. The problem here, surely, is that it would be unwise for a New Zealand government to provoke either side in the War on Terror.

After all, this is as amoral a White House as there has ever been. These people are currently implementing a defence strategy that posits the US as, in the words of Colin Powell to the US House Armed Services Committee, "the bully on the block".

This plan (dubbed, naturally enough, The Plan) has provoked horror among America's allies - let alone its enemies - since it was first drawn up in the last days of Bush I.

Now, of course, to say so would be to aid the terrorists. As defence specialist John Ruck pointed out in the New Zealand Herald, enthusiastic support for the US strategy has bought no particular favours for Australia - but to be seen to reject it would surely be to risk being bullied.

And yet standing too close to America is now quite clearly the way to make your country the target of the religious fascists from Al Qaeda. The Clark government is - as it has in so many spheres - practising pragmatism.

Swiftly offer modest aid in Afghanistan - but try not to talk about it. Steer well clear of Iraq - but send a frigate to help with the established programme of anti-terrorist surveillance in the Mediterranean. Reject unilateral America action in Iraq, but take a softer line now that the UN Security Council has been hectored into a new resolution. It might not satisfy the high moral stances of either the Greens or Act, but it is probably the best way of keeping our little country out of trouble.

In the meantime just be glad you're not an American liberal. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - does anybody else find him a lot scarier than Saddam? - has created his own personal intelligence agency. The CIA's crime, it appears was an inability to advise that Iraq was a terrorist hotbed and presented an imminent danger to the US.

And the President who seems indecently keen for a war in which thousands will die? Amazingly enough, he's a military deserter.

Normally, conspiracy theories about rigged elections and political assassinations wouldn't get much play round here. But the people currently in the White House are so evil and unpleasant you couldn't entirely rule it out.

Somewhat less evil and unpleasant is former TVNZ chair Ross Armstrong. Sure, he was in all probability a malign influence-peddler - but how does a story about a mistaken expenses claim of $360 - which was paid back - make front page lead in the Herald?

And while it may have been sloppy for KPMG to miss an invoice for $7500 relating to a trip he took to Paris, activities like hiring an interpreter do not appear to smack of corruption. At the least, I'd expect a newspaper to tell me whether he was in Paris on official business and with the approval of his board - but, curiously, neither the Herald or the Dominion managed to fit that (one would think) fairly crucial piece of information into their front-page stories.

And most of all, I am in no mood to be lectured about this kind of thing by National's sleazemonger Murray McCully. Some of us have memories that stretch back to his extraordinary and unacceptable conduct as Minister of Tourism.