A meeting of the unformed military leaders of 22 countries involved in the anti-Islamic State coalition gathered today at Andrews Airforce Base outside of Washington DC. The participants included the 5 Eyes partners, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, seven Arab states, other NATO countries and Turkey. New Zealand was represented by the Chief of the Defense Forces Lt. General Timothy Keating.
John Key says that this is just a regular annual meeting of military heads. I think not.
First, regular annual meetings of uniformed defense leaders are highly symbolic affairs with much protocol, pomp and circumstance. When hosted by the US they are held at the Pentagon, which has a ceremonial entrance (the East steps) and E-Ring conference rooms for such events (the E Ring is the outer ring of the Pentagon where the Secretary, Joint Chiefs and military service leaders have their offices). The meetings are generally regional in nature as befits the concerns of the chiefs involved. I know this because I was involved in organising such meetings for Latin American defense chiefs in the early 1990s and know that the protocols are the same today.
Working meetings of US-allied military leaders are subject specific and sometimes inter-regional in nature. They are held on military bases with minimal ceremony. They generally address the specifics of carrying out assigned roles and missions within a policy framework established by the political leadership of the countries in question. They usually do not include Defense Ministers, presidents or prime ministers because they are about implementation not authorisation.
The meeting at Â Andrews Air Force Base has four interesting features:
1) President Obama addressed the coalition military chiefs. That is highly unusual because it means he is expending political capital and his reputation on the event. He cannot walk away empty-handed because he will suffer a loss of face and credibility and home and abroad, so something substantive has to come out of the meeting;
2) That mainly involves Turkey. Turkey has not committed to the fight against IS until it has two demands met: the removal of the Assad regime by the coalition and acceptance of Turkish attacks on Kurdish (PKK) forces on the Syrian-Turkish border (in a two birds with one stone approach). The other coalition partners do not want to accept these demands, at least until IS is defeated, so the stage is set for some serious wrangling over Turkish involvement in the coalition. Without Turkey fully on-board, it is quite possible that the coalition will unravel and a reduced number of countries will have to go it alone without close regional support (which could be a disaster);
3) The presence of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE is important. The meeting may signal the first time that they agree to commit military forces and fight together in the Middle East against a common enemy. Their presence gives the coalition credibility in the Muslim world;
4) New Zealand is represented at the meeting, yet is the only country that publicly maintains that it has not yet decided to contribute Â troops.
This is where the PM’s remarks are odd.
If New Zealand was still negotiating its participation it would have sent a contingent led by a senior diplomat, not a military officer. The negotiations over participation would not take place at Andrews Air Force Base or the Pentagon but at the State Department or White House.
The Islamic State is not Â only about to gain control of the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobali, but have advanced on the outskirts of Baghdad. It controls Mosul, Kirkuk and Ramadi. It is a clear and present danger to the territorial integrity of Iraq. To avoid the partition of Iraq action against it must be taken immediately. Yet Prime Minister Key says that he would like to defer a decision until sometime before the APEC meetings next month. That simply is too late to wait to make a decision given the circumstances.
It turns out that Mr. Key did not know that President Obama attended and addressed the meeting. He says that General Keating will report back on what was discussed, which Mr. Key says will cover a wide range of topics. But the Pentagon has stated that the meeting is solely focused on hashing out a military strategy with which to defeat the Islamic State.
It beggars belief that Mr. Key did not know that Obama was going to be at the meeting, or that he thinks it is one of the regular shmooze fests that pass as senior leadership meetings. So one of three things is possible:
Either he knows full well what the meeting is about and is deliberately lying to the NZ public about NZ’s role in the coalition; he is clueless about the nature of the meeting but does not care; or he is simply incompetent and unsuited to be Minister of National Security.
Take your pick.