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Lies, Damned Lies And The Iraq Debate In NZ

Lies, Damned Lies And The Iraq Debate In NZ

By Nick Turner

The debate in this country over Iraq and over New Zealand's chances of a free trade agreement with the US has become mired in lies, distortions, misrepresentations and hypocrisy.

In this article, some instances are detailed in the hope that the perpetrators may be shamed into some respect for the truth, that the media may play a more active role in monitoring such abuses, and that debate may be brought back to a more honest and rational basis and the public not be so cynically misled.

There are adequate grounds to debate the PM's Iraq policy without having to invent falsifications of her position and the facts.

It is a matter for public concern that on an important foreign affairs issue like this, the New Zealand media have shown too little willingness to see beyond today's "opposition attacks government" headline.

The media, who proudly bear the label "the Fourth Estate", need to be prepared sometimes to turn their blowtorches on opposition politicians as they do on the government.

Otherwise the public can all too easily become victim to the Goebbels principle that if lies are told often enough they will be believed.

It is not enough for the media to simply report government "denials" of such lies. That does not help the public know who is right. The media have an obligation to investigate and set out the facts, and to do so promptly, to prevent the public being misled.

There is also a wider dimension to this, involving the national interest. In this Internet age, what we say between ourselves is open to the world, and perversions of the truth that are used to gain short term advantage in domestic debate can easily gain credibility overseas.

If politicians and commentators in the US or Australia (or any other country for that matter) are reading the National Party website for example, they will get a highly distorted portrayal of the government's position on Iraq. How can that be in the national interest?

Among the untruths that have been promulgated in the Iraq debate here are:

* That the PM has personally insulted or criticised President Bush

This allegation has been heavily promoted by the National and Act parties and to a lesser extent by New Zealand First and United Future, but no one has produced any examples, apart from her comment about Al Gore which seems to have annoyed some in Washington.

How could that be a personal insult to President Bush? She was asked by media whether she thought a president other than Mr Bush would have handled things differently. In her reply she surmised that if Al Gore had been president the people of Iraq probably would not be under US military attack.

It is to be hoped that the NZ embassy in Washington and others who are promoting New Zealand's interests in the US have been given the transcripts and details of the circumstances of Miss Clark's comments, to refute the "personal insult to Bush" allegation.

Her comment was probably a breach of the convention that a national leader does not comment on the internal politics of a friendly nation, but that does not mean it was an insult to President Bush.

A very sensitive person might take exception to the inference that Miss Clark would have been happier with Mr Gore's approach than the Bush approach, but again that is not a personal insult to Mr Bush.

Nevertheless, the PM has apologised for any offence taken in Washington.

Incidentally, for a rather better example of how to insult overseas heads of state who could be important to us in getting better trade access to major markets, how about this from Mr English? In parliament he said President Chirac of France was "public enemy number one", that Mr Chirac (not his country but he himself) had made "billions" out of Iraq's oil-for-food programme, and his government was alleged to have given Iraq secrets about US war planning. The Act party has made similar statements, in less colourful terms.

* That Miss Clark's comments which caused offence in Washington were factually wrong

They were not. The National, Act and NZ First parties claimed repeatedly in parliament and on their websites that Al Gore was a strong supporter of the Bush war policy, and the Act party even claimed to have evidence of this.

But they obviously had not done even the most basic research. As was shown in my recent articles on Scoop and in the NZ Herald, Mr Gore was a very strong and public opponent of the Iraq war. Yet the National Party continues to imply that Miss Clark was wrong on this.

The PM also alluded to the fact that some people close to President Bush had been pushing for a war against Iraq long before Mr Bush came into office, and that 9-11 provided the trigger for implementing their plan.

This is also true and undisputed in the US. As far back as 1998, several members of the Bush administration including Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Robert Zoellick were publicly calling on President Clinton and congressional leaders to launch a war against Iraq. Mr Bush himself when elected did not initially embrace this policy, but after 9-11 he was persuaded to do so.

* That Miss Clark warned the US and UK they might live to regret unleashing "the law of the jungle" by invading Iraq

This statement was attributed to her in the heading and first paragraph of a fairly brief and obscure item in the British newspaper The Guardian on May 3 after she gave an interview to two of the paper's reporters. It was then picked up and prominently reported in New Zealand media and trumpeted by the opposition as an example of Miss Clark attacking the US and UK.

The transcript of her Guardian interview shows her comments were misreported and given an anti-American and anti-British spin that was not present in what she said. Her tone was not hostile towards the US and Britain, and it was her interviewer Mr Freedland who was clearly trying to push her into making statements critical of them.

Miss Clark made the transcript available on her return home, and the media and politicians in this country know what she actually said, so there is no excuse for them to be giving further currency to The Guardian's misreporting, yet it continues to be trotted out frequently.

In summary, what Miss Clark actually told The Guardian was that if great powers act unilaterally without UN sanction, even if their motives can be justified in a particular instance, this may set a precedent that could be used by other powerful countries in future, potentially leading to a 19th-century-type situation where the smaller nations are simply carved up by them, and we should try to avoid this.

She did not "warn" the US and Britain, or say they would live to regret their action in Iraq, or that they had already taken the world back to a 19th-century jungle situation.

In fact she said there were good signs that the US and other countries were moving back quickly towards a multilateral approach on issues such as world trade and North Korea. "There's quite a lot of evidence of goodwill towards that," she said.

Nor did she use the term "law of the jungle" or the word "unleash". And she didn't even use the word "jungle" until pressed to do so by Mr Freedland. She referred simply to the danger of returning to a 19th-century-type situation, and Mr Freedland then asked: "You mean the jungle?" to which she replied "Yes, the jungle. Who wants to go back to the jungle?".

Having got her to utter the word "jungle", the Guardian reporters then used it as the basis for attributing to her a statement that grossly misrepresented the content and tone of her comments.

Despite assertions by our opposition parties that she attacked the US and UK in her interview, she did not criticise either country at all.

When asked by Mr Freedland if the US attitude made her fearful she said no, and when he invited her to criticise Mr Blair for joining the US-led war she pointedly refused to do so, saying she fully understood his reasons. She also expressed sympathy with both countries' frustration over Iraq's refusal to cooperate over weapons of mass destruction.

* That Miss Clark has insulted and criticised Australia and the UK for joining the US war against Iraq

Her critics do not produce any examples of such criticism, or if they do they are false.

Miss Clark has repeatedly refused to criticise Australia and Britain and said she would not do so, despite constant goading by the opposition. In fact she has publicly expressed understanding of the reasons both countries entered the war.

* That Miss Clark criticised Australia by implying that it sent men to die in Iraq in order to get a trade deal with the US

This odious myth originated in a Canberra newspaper, The Australian, and has long since been thoroughly exposed as false, yet it continues to be repeated by some New Zealand politicians, notably in the National Party.

At a news conference in Wellington on 31 March Miss Clark was asked to comment on suggestions that her position on the Iraq war had destroyed any chance of a free trade deal with the US.

In part of her reply she said: "The bottom line is that this government doesn't trade the lives of young New Zealanders for a war that it doesn't believe in, in order to secure some material advantage."

The context of her comment made it perfectly clear that there were two apparent targets of her comment, and neither of them was Australia.

One was the anonymous US sources quoted in our media as saying the US would call off a free trade deal, but who had already said previously that New Zealand had no chance of a free trade deal anyway because of its anti-nuclear policy.

The second target was those opposition politicians in New Zealand (Act and National) who were arguing that she should support the war in order to improve New Zealand's chances of a trade agreement.

There was no way her comment could be interpreted as referring to Australia, and none of the journalists present took it has having such a meaning.

But the editors of The Australian sitting in Canberra, who have a long record of hostility towards New Zealand and particularly the Clark government, decided to publish an editorial misrepresenting the remark as an attack on Australia.

This was then seized on avidly by National and Act as evidence that "Australia" had taken offence because Miss Clark had impugned its motives for going to war. In doing so they diverted attention away from the fact that they were the ones supporting a war against Iraq in order to get a trade deal.

No evidence has been produced that Australia or its government took offence at Miss Clark's comment, and when The Australian published its bizarre editorial she responded publicly making clear that it was baseless.

So there could be no justification for perpetuating the myth that she was criticising Australia. Yet Mr English and Dr Mapp in particular have continued to propagate it, and as recently as last week Mr English gave it another burst in his web column.

This is a classic case where the constant repetition of a lie could actually instigate the rift between New Zealand and Australia that the National Party claims it wants to avoid and is accusing Miss Clark of creating.

* That Miss Clark suggested it is in New Zealand's interests for France, Germany and Russia to form a bloc opposed to the US.

This myth is a blatant misrepresentation of what Miss Clark said in an interview reported in the NZ Herald on 10 April, before her recent trip to Europe.

She noted that it was a very interesting time to be going there because the Iraq crisis had changed the relationship between Europe and the US, and "everyone will be preoccupied by how the world order will be reshaped".

She said the big questions under debate would be: "Is there going to be a Franco/German/Russian linkup with good links through to the Chinese, against what we have which looks like a small Anglo-American group? It shifts the whole dynamic. Is Britain's future with Europe or is it transatlantic? They are very interesting questions."

Yes indeed. But contrary to Mr English's repeated assertions, she did not say or even imply that such a Franco/German/Russian linkup was in New Zealand's interests or that she wanted New Zealand to be part of it.

Quite the reverse in fact, she told the Herald New Zealand had not put itself "in a group with the French, Germans and Russians at all".

In parliament Mr English, Mr Prebble and Mr Peters combined forces to heap ridicule on Miss Clark's comments about a Europe-versus-US scenario and challenge her to name anyone else who shared her concerns.

Actually there are quite a few prominent people she could have named, but a good one to start with is Robert Zoellick, the US Trade Representative - a member of President Bush's cabinet whose comments on other aspects of the Iraq debate have often been cited by the opposition.

At an economic summit in Munich on 3 May, he told the Europeans that the Iraq debate had changed transatlantic relationships, and "I just don't believe we can go back to the old relationships."

He told them Europe had to decide whether it was going to cooperate with the US on crucial issues or "build up as a counterweight power". And he went on to name China as also catching "the European disease".

In ridiculing Miss Clark's concerns, the opposition parties were also ridiculing those of Mr Zoellick - a man who in the early 1990s played a pivotal role in the reunification of Germany, and would know more about the dynamics of Europe and European-US relations than all of our opposition MPs put together.

* That the Pentagon has said New Zealand is "on the outer"

Mr English and the National Party's foreign affairs spokesman Wayne Mapp have made frequent reference to an interview given to the Christchurch Press by Dr Andrew Scobell, a US academic and occasional consultant to the Pentagon.

The thrust of Dr Scobell's remarks was that he believed senior levels of the Pentagon were highly unimpressed by New Zealand's policy on Iraq.

The second paragraph of the Press story reported Dr Scobell as saying a thaw in relations between the US and New Zealand would take a long time, even needing a change of government on both sides.

However, that paraphrase of his comments was not supported by the quotations later in the report of what he actually said.

It was wrong in two respects. Firstly, Dr Scobell was not talking about a thaw in NZ-US relations generally, but about New Zealand rejoining an "alliance" with the US. That is a very different matter. Secondly he did not say definitely that this would take a long time and changes of government, but that it might.

Here are his exact words, as quoted in the Press report:

"There are obviously some issues at a government level that need to be resolved if we are to get back to a proper alliance. It may take a change of government on both sides and many years for that to change."

The Press also noted that Dr Scobell "stressed his observations were his own and did not reflect the views of the US military".

But that did not stop Mr English immediately issuing a news release under the heading "Pentagon confirms NZ is on the outer" and quoting "reports from US officials at the Pentagon".

He seized on the Press's inaccurate second paragraph about a thaw in US-NZ relations, ignoring what Dr Scobell actually said further on, which referred to a return to "a proper alliance". It's not that he didn't read that far down, because his media statement also mentioned points from paragraphs even further on in the Press report.


Nick Turner is a Wellington writer and observer of international affairs. He welcomes your Feedback.

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