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The reaction to the just-released Chilcot report with its seven-year intensive examination of the United Kingdom’s 2003 intervention in Iraq has been extraordinary. We have had endless debate over whether the intervention had U.N. or other legal approval. But there has been little attention to the human cost.

The role played by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair was despicable in some respects — the slobbering efforts to please a U.S. administration already notorious for its “axis of evil” exaggerations, for example. But Blair’s main point remains unanswered: What does the world do when a dictator sets out to crucify all opposition, especially when he represents only a minority in the nation? Given Saddam Hussein’s well-documented atrocities against the Shiite and Kurdish people under his rule, surely someone, somehow, should have had the right to intervene to force an end to his barbarism. Today it is called humanitarian intervention, or “responsibility to protect” (R2P). It should have been just as valid then as it is today.

The problem with that principled approach, of course, is lack of consistency. It would, for example, have required action to protect the Russian-speaking majority in eastern Ukraine now under attack from Ukrainian ultra-nationalists for seeking autonomy to which they would normally be entitled. Justifications for Western intervention in Vietnam or the former Yugoslavia, for instance, would be upended if the concept of responsibility to protect not just majorities but oppressed minorities was adopted. In Syria, R2P would seem at least to have demanded that the West impose no-fly zones to protect the opponents of the Assad regime.

Given the unwillingness at the time to use humanitarian justice arguments, it could be argued that the U.S. and U.K. efforts to invent a phony “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) excuse for intervention in Iraq were understandable. But did they need to be so blatant?

To many outside observers at the time (including this writer as a Japan Times contributor), it was obvious that the claims Iraq was hiding WMD and harboring al-Qaida supporters were false. Apart from anything else it was common knowledge that the Saddam regime was itself hunting down al-Qaida followers. And over WMD it was clear that the more objective reports by neutral observers were being ignored in favor of the biased; the much quoted anti-Saddam Butler report, for example, was contrived by my former Australian foreign service colleague, Richard Butler, well-known among us for his impetuosity and careerist efforts to seek U.S. favor. (He ended up in 2004 having to resign as governor of Tasmania after allegations of serious misbehavior by himself and his wife).

The problem with the Iraq intervention, as with all other U.S./U.K. interventions in the Middle East, has been both the ignorance and the cruelty with which they have been conducted. The mistakes in administering post-intervention Iraq have been well-documented. But there are many others — the idea that soldiers and advisers unable even to speak local languages can somehow mold the nations they occupy, for example.

Over Iraq there may have been some initial R2P justification (though if reports that Saddam was willing to stand down if promised exile in Egypt are true, then Blair and others have much to answer for). But what are we to say about the Afghanistan intervention?

Here at best we have to assume ignorance — the inability to realize that the Taliban enjoyed genuine support for its role in ending previous disorder and that over time it could well have moderated. Or that intervention was fueled by Western hubris — a belief that our values were better than theirs and should be imposed. At worst we have to assume interventions were unvarnished imperialism — the wish simply to control more global territory, as the U.S. neocons have come close to admitting. Or simply the desire to give our militaries the chance to test their weapons and show their worth, rather like a proud dog owner wants to let his animal loose occasionally.

(On the hubris front we have the Malala phenomenon — the desire to see this brave woman, Malala Yousafzai, as fighting for female education freedom denied by the Taliban. In fact her father had long been running a successful girls school in Taliban territory. She was shot and badly injured for seeking openly to criticize the Taliban.)

Equally harmful has been the cruelty factor — the relentless reliance on indiscriminate aerial bombing, for example, or the former mistreatment of prisoners. There is something in the Western mentality that allows it to wallow in remorse for the sufferings of its own people — the 179 U.K. soldiers killed in Iraq, for example — and largely ignore the far greater sufferings of the many innocent civilians they are attacking. Our lives are much more valuable than theirs, it seems. It is racism of the worst possible kind.

The United States, for example, has agonized endlessly over the several casualties caused by the 2013 terrorist attack on Boston marathoners. Yet every day we have to assume that somewhere in the Middle East more are being killed or threatened by yet another Western airstrike against alleged enemies. If anything, our societies get nice warm feelings from the news those airstrikes are underway. Few seem to want even to think about the broken bodies, the shattered lives and the loss of property they cause.

But if we do not worry, others do, and some now seek revenge. At least some of the recent terrorist attacks in the West are fueled by revenge anger. Those attacks can only get worse in the future as these angry people realize how easily they can get the weapons and opportunities to create mayhem in our defenseless Western societies. More admission of past Western mistakes in the Middle East is badly needed. The Chilcot report is only a start, and a very timid one at that.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat with Cold War experience. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net .

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