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A cautionary tale for the liberal interventionist (MICHAEL MACOR/Michael Macor/AP)
A cautionary tale for the liberal interventionist (MICHAEL MACOR/Michael Macor/AP)

Margaret Wente

A cautionary tale for the liberal interventionist Add to ...

The main revelation in the latest cache of documents from WikiLeaks is not the collateral damage inflicted by American troops on innocent Iraqis (although there's plenty of that). It's the damage inflicted by Iraqis on one another. The liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein and his chamber of horrors turned the entire country into a chamber of horrors. Of the 109,000 deaths recorded in these newly released U.S. military documents, which span the period from 2004 to 2009, the vast majority were Iraqi civilians murdered by other Iraqis.

It's a classic case of doing bad by trying to do good. And it's a cautionary tale for any would-be peacekeeper or liberal interventionist - if there happen to be any left - who thinks we can rescue people from themselves.

I was a liberal interventionist back then. In my defence, I was in the best of company - Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, among others. Liberal interventionists believed that the Iraqi people (to say nothing of the rest of the world) would be a lot better off without Saddam. I'd met Iraqis in Canada who showed me the torture wounds they'd acquired in Saddam's dungeons. I knew about the gassing of the Kurds and the ethnic cleansing at Hilla, where Saddam's thugs would take people out at night to dig their own graves, then shoot them. I wasn't an imperialist, I was a humanitarian.

When I went to Iraq a few months after the war, it dawned on me that the road to freedom from tyranny might be longer than I'd thought. I met many people, especially in the U.S. military, who were valiantly trying to do the right thing. I met brave Iraqis and earnest democracy promoters who were endeavouring to teach the locals the ins and outs of fair elections. Optimism was in the air. But the retaliations had already begun.

Kidnappings and revenge killings had become routine. The police were corrupt and feared. Society was tribal - people identified first and foremost with their clan, whose network of enemies and allies was impossible for outsiders to figure out. Millions of angry young men couldn't find work. Iraqis were incredibly conspiracy-minded and superstitious, and many of them believed in genies. I came to believe that the U.S.-led invasion had let the genie out of the bottle, and not necessarily for the better.

Later, people blamed the ensuing chaos on the Americans' lack of postwar planning and the decision to disband the Iraqi army. I think the chaos was inevitable, no matter what.

These WikiLeaks documents (released last week to a handful of international media outlets) are important because they show just how disastrous Operation Iraqi Freedom really was. As Der Spiegel explained, they show how the struggle between Shiites and Sunnis unfolded, how society became brutalized, and how kidnappings, executions and prisoner torture became part of everyday life.

The abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison were mild compared with the atrocities inflicted by Iraqis on each other. The Shia-controlled Interior Ministry ran secret jails in which inmates, most of them Sunnis, endured the same kinds of torture as those inflicted by Saddam. They were burned with boiling water, had their fingers amputated, and had electroshock applied to their genitals. When U.S. forces discovered the brutalities, they simply filled out incident reports and forwarded them to the local authorities.

As the distinction between insurgents and government employees became increasingly fuzzy, militias operated in the open, under the eyes of security forces. IEDs were planted everywhere. Al-Qaeda forces planted bombs in corpses, babies' cribs and teddy bears, as well as on live children, who were known as "paradise boys." Not surprisingly, U.S. troops tended to shoot too early rather than too late.

Afghanistan, by contrast, is supposed to be a "good" war. But it's hard to fight a good war in a violent society with bad guys on every side. And I fear that those Canadians who long for the good old days, when our military served virtuously as "peacekeepers," are just as deluded as I was back in 2003. The world's conflict zones don't look like Cyprus any more. They look like Iraq and Afghanistan - ugly, violent places where high-minded moral interventions are often futile, or worse.

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