Another Iraq War Opponent Puts Positive Spin on Bush Victory

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, whose relations with President Bush have been strained at times over foreign policy differences, was quick to congratulate him on his re-election, saying she was confident of working with the new administration.

Under Clark's center-left Labor government, New Zealand has edged away from close cooperation with its traditional allies, Australia and the U.S., in part due to Wellington's opposition to the war on Iraq.

Like other critics of the war, such as the leaders of France and Germany, Clark adopted an optimistic tone in her reaction to the election outcome, saying she expected "solid ties to be further developed during President Bush's second term."

"We know precisely what the policies of the Bush administration are and how they interact with those of New Zealand, so there are really no surprises."

Clark's relationship with Washington is often contrasted to the warm ties between the Bush administration and Prime Minister John Howard's recently re-elected government in neighboring Australia.

New Zealand contributed to the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan but strongly disapproved of the war in Iraq, siding with critics like France, Russia and Germany. It did send a small number of troops to help with the post-war reconstruction effort.

During the war, Clark publicly suggested that the conflict would not have happened had former Vice-President Al Gore won the 2000 election.

After strong criticism from her political opponents, Clark subsequently apologized for any offense her remarks may have caused, although her critics pointed out she did not apologize for the actual sentiments expressed.

They also criticized the decision by her foreign minister, Phil Goff, to ignore an Israeli request not to visit Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat while on a visit to the region last year. Both the U.S. and Israel had isolated Arafat, whom they accused of jeopardizing the U.S. "road map" peace initiative.

Although differences over the Middle East were stark, difficulties in the relationship go back further, to a decision by a former Labor government to ban nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships from calling at New Zealand ports.

The policy effectively ended New Zealand's participation in the ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-U.S.) alliance, and domestic critics have been pressing Clark to abandon it.

Asked in a radio interview whether she was surprised that both Bush and Howard had won re-election with stronger mandates, Clark said: "Where you have strong leaders, as both Mr. Howard and George Bush are, and they communicate a conviction about what they are doing, people will back them."

Clark said she looked forward to congratulating Bush in person at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Santiago, Chile later this month.

New Zealand's left-wing Green Party urged Clark to stand up to Bush more often during his second term.

"After four years of illegal aggression, contempt for international conventions and abuse of human rights we can't allow Bush to continue setting the agenda," party foreign affairs spokesman Keith Locke said.

Asked how he saw bilateral ties developing over the next four years, the chairman of the Republicans Abroad chapter in New Zealand, William C. Bailey, said Thursday good relations were "a two-way street."

"President Bush has been re-elected and that's a reality people are going to have to live with, whether or not they like it."

Bailey suggested that changes may also be evident from the U.S. side.

"History has shown that second-term presidents can be extraordinarily creative and magnanimous - if you look at Nixon opening up China; if you look at Reagan presiding over the demise of the Soviet Union. Clinton of course was a question mark, but it certainly opens up Bush for a surprisingly positive second term."

Prof. Robert Patman of the department of political studies at New Zealand's University of Otago said Thursday that he did not think Bush's re-election would have a dramatic effect on bilateral relations.

Although the Clark government would probably have been "more comfortable with a Kerry administration," it was pragmatic.

He noted that while it opposed the war, "once the U.N. began to get involved" in Iraq in mid-2003, New Zealand began to play a part in the reconstruction effort.

"It's doing its part in the war on terror, but reserves the right to exercise some independent decision-making within that process, and I would expect that to continue."

Patman attributed New Zealand's strong support for multilateralism, in part, to its size.

"Small countries have a much bigger stake in having a rules-governed environment than bigger ones, which can largely shape their environment."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow