Dutch Troops to Stay in Iraq

You’ll be glad to know that the Dutch government approved last Friday an extension to the deployment of that country’s around 1300 troops in Iraq, who otherwise would have packed up and left next month. You may recall that there were increasing doubts about whether having troops there was really such a good thing, especially after the first Dutch soldier was killed last month (coverage of that was itself covered, of course, here in EuroSavant). But now in fact what’s been approved is not the usual six-month extension but one of eight months, until March of 2005 – designed to have Dutch troops in place to help provide security for those Iraqi elections scheduled for next January, plus a safety margin of a number of weeks beyond.

What has made all the difference has been that United Nations Security Council resolution on the transfer of sovereignty back to Iraq that was passed unanimously last week, as an analysis in the NRC Handelsblad by RenĂ© Moerland and Floris van Straaten makes clear (From Dilemma to Necessity – free registration required).

Before, any extension of the troops’ presence, in the Al-Muthanna province where the security situation was distinctly worsening, was looking like an iffy proposition – or at least one that the Dutch Cabinet still had the power to make, but would do so in the rather uncomfortable position of having limited political support. Indeed, the D66 party, one of the three in the governing coalition, was leaning against any extension.

But now D66 is for the extension, as party spokesmen made clear the day after the UN resolution passed. But wide political support is still something desired in this matter of continuing to place Dutch soldiers in harm’s way, meaning also the support of the main opposition party, the Party of Labor (PvdA). PvdA leader Wouter Bos was clearly leaning against any such extension prior to the UN Resolution, and this even before the Dutch military fatality last month: four days after the terrorist bomb attacks on Spanish trains of last March 11, he remarked “Well, it’s been nice having that Dutch presence in Iraq” (Het is mooi geweest met de Nederlandse aanwezigheid in Irak), which was widely interpreted to mean “but we’ve got to put a stop to that the next chance we get.” Unfortunately, even after the passage of the UN resolution Bos has insisted on remaining coy as to whether the PvdA would also support extension.


It’s all a matter of timing, you see: there has been a remarkable confluence of events here in the first month of June. The deadline that has always been here – of last Friday, 11 June, but give or take a few days – has been that of deciding whether or not to extend the Dutch troops’ stay in Iraq, since if that decision went negative the intervening month’s time would be necessary to prepare for their withdrawal. Lo and behold, on the Tuesday before that Friday the UN Security Council managed to pass a unanimous resolution (aided by US concessions) that provided the Dutch government with the political cover to go ahead and approve extension. But there was yet another impinging event, and that was of course the European Parliament elections, which happened in the Netherlands last Thursday. Keeping troops in Iraq might be the right thing to do, now that a military presence there carries a UN seal-of-approval, but it is still hardly very popular. It seems clear that Bos was holding out on expressing the PvdA’s support or non-support for extension (and, even as I write this, he still has not come down one way or another) with a view to those Euro-elections and not alienating those from the PvdA constituency who are against any more Dutch involvement there no matter what. Far better simply to keep a studied air of ambiguity even when, as the Volkskrant (free registration required) reported in its coverage, all other parties were appealing to the PvdA to also weigh in before those elections. (And it seemed to work: those election results – free registration required – had the PvdA as the only major party gaining seats in the European Parliament – one, to be exact. As always, cynicism is a useful political tool.)

In any case, as of Friday the Cabinet made the decision to stay for another eight months. But what then? For Dutch foreign minister B.R. Bot the situation is clear, as he expressed in an NRC Handelsblad interview (“After the Iraqi Elections, We Can Go”). But is that really true? Counterpoint has come from the liberal VVD party, one of the main parties in the governing coalition, as the Volkskrant reports (VVD Wants Troops to Stay in Iraq Also After March 2005 – free registration required). Specifically, Tweede Kamer member of the VVD Geert Wilders raises the very reasonable prospect that things will not be all peaceful in Iraq even after those elections in January, and asks “Why not four more months? Or why not stay to the end of 2005, when the UN mandate for the presence of foreign troops expires?” In any event, even Wilders expects that a firm date be set for the Dutch troops’ withdrawal, i.e. no open-ended commitment; that is at least something that all Dutch political parties can agree on.

By the way, as also reported in the NRC (Military Another Eight Months in Iraq), the LPF party was also willing to support extension of the Dutch mandate in Iraq, but only by four months. Anything more than four months, it would be no dice. But that’s the Lijst Pim Fortuyn, the right-wing party that carried on after the assassination in May, 2002, of the charismatic Dutch politician of that name. Premier Balkenende’s cabinet may want to reach across the political aisle to get wide support for keeping Dutch troops in Iraq longer, but apparently that policy does not extend to the LPF, which is largely viewed as an extremist party (also, occasionally, a party of clowns), and whose electoral and political influence in any case is steadily waning.

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