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Clark’s baggage ensures rock remains on road to trade deal

New Zealand Herald, Auckland

Clark’s baggage ensures rock remains on road to trade deal

By Fran O’Sullivan

23 March 2007

Here’s my take on what really went down when Helen Clark met George Bush at the White House. The big international agenda - those issues that are really central to the security of the Western world, such as Iraq - was on the table.

New Zealand will be in on the ground when the United Nations moves - as it ultimately must - to bring a peace-keeping solution, a la Kosovo, to deeply balkanised Iraq.

Our contribution will be small. But we are being drawn into the behind-the-scenes choreography led by experienced international players, like Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer in our neck of the woods, to draw a line under the US occupation.

The skills this country has displayed with its provincial reconstruction team efforts in Afghanistan, and in Iraq before the Government got the willies over a potential domestic backlash, will be called on again. We’re also likely to help train the Iraqi police and security forces.

Downer indicated in his recent visit that we need to do this to help ensure that the Iraqi unrest does not spill over to fuel a new wave of terrorism in Southeast Asia. This concern is shared - not just by Australia but also by a number of our Asean neighbours.

Clark has intimated that New Zealand will play its part. But it will be under a multilateral umbrella - preferably the United Nations rather than Nato, which is now running a big dollop of the counter-insurgency operations against the Taleban in Afghanistan.

It’s a bit of a rerun of the choreography used to ensure New Zealand’s initial post-invasion commitment in Iraq, which was nutted out during Clark’s Downing St meeting with Tony Blair in 2003.

Business is being done. But the diplomatic fig-leaf will stay on until the details are nailed.

The 45 minutes Bush and Clark spent on the formal agenda was carefully pre-cooked to ensure her second prime ministerial visit to Washington could be portrayed as a diplomatic triumph.

Before her trip Clark said she didn’t want to be drawn into making any public comment on the invasion as New Zealand did not commit troops. But once she hit Washington she couldn’t help herself.

Instead of resorting to euphemisms she directly mentioned the "invasion" in a major speech to the Asian Society before her meeting with Bush. No wonder he described her as an "honest and straightforward woman".

Clark has had a public success. Her spin that the nuclear issue is basically buried has been accepted.

The "getting round the rock in the road" line - used extensively as an analogy for our anti-nuclear policy during Clark’s trip - was carefully planted in advance and resonated during subsequent reportage.

But how friendly are we really?

Clark’s invited Bush to come down here for a bit of mountain biking or fishing after the Sydney Apec meeting.’

The last time he came to our neighbourhood was in 2003 when he went to Australia to thank Prime Minister John Howard in person for supporting the US effort to topple Saddam Hussein.

But unlike Chinese President Hu Jintao, who also went to Australia in late 2003, Bush did not take time to visit here.

If the views of Herald online readers - as published on - are anything to go by, Bush would have to wonder if he really would be welcome.

Some 240 New Zealanders posted their views after online readers were asked to come up with captions for a photo of Clark listening to Bush in full speak at the Oval Office.

The Reuters shot was dreadful. Clark was wearing that grimacing death stare that she takes on in unguarded moments. Bush, who was speaking, had his mouth open.

If the captions are representative of New Zealanders’ views it is clear our countrymen do not share the "respect" for Bush or the presidential office that Clark professed from Washington.

Readers were asked to indicate what Clark was thinking about Bush when the picture was taken. The responses were revealing.

"Is it my imagination or are those maggots crawling around in there ... Thank heavens this moron will be impeached before the year is out ... I thought humans needed an IQ above 74 to be able to talk? ... Where is Benson Pope and his tennis balls when you need him?"

A couple were clever. But in the main they were gratuitous and personally offensive.

Bush’s officials might well read that as an indication of what New Zealanders really think that Clark thinks about Bush. That’s why the "rock in the road" that stops a free trade deal is unlikely to be moved until a new political leader - with no baggage - makes a trip to the White House.