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How Do You Regret Saved Lives?

In the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente writes of her regret at having supported the Iraq War as a liberal interventionist. She now claims she was “deluded” to think there was a sound humanitarian justification for the invasion in 2003. What has prompted this apologia? Details in the Iraq files just released by Wikileaks:

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.

No human is immune to hearing about that kind of brutality. Which is why a little context actually strengthens the liberal-interventionist position.  The math is simple, if disturbing: According to estimates from human rights organizations, from 1979 to 2003, Saddam Hussein probably killed 800,000 to 1 million people, many through methods similar to the ones detailed above. This puts his annual average in the neighborhood of 45,000 murders. At that rate, if he were left in power, he would have killed 360,000 since 2003. As of today, the website Iraqbodycount.org puts the total number of civilian deaths caused by the Iraq War between 98,585 and 107,594. In what universe is 100,000 dead worse than 360,000?

Moreover, consider how the annual Iraqi body count will likely continue to plummet in the coming years. Add to that, the prospect—shaky though it may be—of a functioning Iraqi democracy. Under Saddam, it would have been 360,000 dead with no chance of ebbing the slaughter and no hope for freedom.

There is no humanitarian justification for regretting Saddam’s ouster, even accounting for the coalition’s mistakes. There are other less quantifiably false arguments against the war. One might make the case that it cost too much to prosecute or turned world opinion against the U.S., for example. But hand-wringing over the net carnage just doesn’t compute. The facts are too easily obtained for Margaret Wente not to understand this. If she regrets her support for the war it can only mean she’s decided that the humanitarian component is not as important as she had once believed.


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