Hager book value lost in headlines
The latest book by investigative journalist Nicky Hager captured a lot of attention on the political landscape last week.
The headline claims were about the collusion between American intelligence agencies and New Zealand troops engaged in aid and development work in Afghanistan, but they were not an essential part of the book’s core argument.
During the past 15 years, a succession of publications by Hager have all had a common theme.
Each book has examined various ways in which the country’s autonomy is being eroded by processes largely concealed from the general public. This absence of genuine democratic participation and debate has been Hager’s recurring theme – regardless of whether the lack of transparency has been the by-product of our military and intelligence alliances, or fostered by our own politicians and bureaucrats and their public relations advisers.
Other People’s Wars is no exception.
Hager’s subject this time is the inner workings of the defence establishment postSeptember 11, and its alleged attempts to subvert the quasiindependent foreign policy of the Clark Government.
Predictably, the current Government has chosen to ignore the contents of the book, and trusted that most New Zealanders will not bother to read it.
Likewise, the defence bureaucracy has maintained that it has always complied with the defence policies of the government of the day.
This is despite reports in the book with regard to the military’s own concerns about the blurring of lines between our intelligence gathering and aid efforts in Afghanistan, and to the covert assistance being given to the American military effort in Iraq, despite government policy to the contrary.
For many readers, the lasting value of the book will be its documentation of a fascinating chapter in our recent history.
By the late 1990s, the New Zealand defence hierarchy was being yanked, kicking and screaming, out of its Cold War mindset, and from its automatic deference to the priorities of our traditional allies in Canberra, London and Washington. At the same time, our armed forces also faced major re-equipment needs.
Problem being, the Bolger/ Shipley Governments had been happy to take advantage of the Soviet Union’s collapse to run down our armed forces – as was illustrated by some embarrassing equipment failures during New Zealand’s deployment in Bosnia.
Thus, the incoming Clark Government had to devise a fresh policy framework, and find an affordable way of reequipping the armed forces for this new role.
The answers Clark came up with? In future, any armed forces deployment would require an explicit United Nations resolution, and be relatively independent of our traditional allies.
Such a role would be affordable only if our armed forces became army-focused, with the air force and navy reduced mainly to support roles.
That vision was met with fierce opposition from both the residue of Cold War thinkers within the defence hierarchy, and its recently retired former leadership.
That tension is well captured by Hager’s book, which gives chapter and verse on the brief period (punctuated by the September 11 attacks) when New Zealand briefly tried to put distance between itself and the neo-colonial tendencies of our traditional allies.
In some ways, we can feel grateful.
Elsewhere, when soldiers decide their political masters are being misguided, they take more drastic action. Hager has shown that even within the New Zealand context, such tendencies have not been entirely absent.