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Published: Friday, 10/28/2005

A milestone that America never bargained for

ON THE road of life there are milestones aplenty. High school graduation is one. Receiving a college degree is another. Marriage and children are biggies, of course, but so are divorce and remarriage. Retirement used to be a predictable milestone until the bull market turned bearish and devoured nest eggs whole.

But milestones in the traditional sense were never supposed to measure tragedy of the preventable kind. They weren't supposed to mark death tolls at regular intervals in the pre-emptive military experiment of the Bush Administration.

This week the number of dead Americans in Iraq reached 2,000 and counting. It was a sign no one saw coming over two years ago.

No one also predicted 15,000-plus seriously wounded American troops coming home from Iraq as tragically broken human beings.

In March, 2003, there was little talk about the tens of thousands of Iraqis who would be slaughtered during and after the U.S. invasion of their country.

Yet ever since George W. Bush led the nation into war the country has marked the pillars of his passion in the hundreds of billions of diverted tax dollars to Iraq and in the daily toll of American casualties and Iraqi devastation. Today death stalks Iraq like an obsessed suitor, making an already miserable existence - without lights, drinkable water, or basic security to leave home without fear of being kidnapped - pure hell.

In the midst of the mayhem is the U.S. military. It is doing what no one in the U.S. envisioned two years ago or, more importantly, would have ever gone to war for in the first place. Democratizing the Middle East, disposing of an evil doer, and liberating a people were not the arguments used to persuade Americans and their representatives in Congress to support pre-emptive war.

The invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration preached religiously, was critical to dismantle an overriding threat to the world posed by Saddam's stealth buildup of weapons of mass destruction. Who knew the stealthiness was just for show and the deadly weapons only the wishful thinking of a band of Baathists placating a despot with grand delusions?

Who knew or suspected as much? Many in the intelligence and diplomatic communities whose misgivings about invading Iraq on the basis of WMDs were minimized in the rush to war-that's who. Now it's Americans who are in shock and awe. Billions of their tax dollars are flying out of the country to pay for not only expansive military needs on the ground in Iraq, but the running tab to prop up a new government, police an occupied country riven by cultural divides, train woefully unprepared Iraqi troops to replace American ones, and fix what war destroyed.

It's Americans who are in shock at the proposed budget cuts - in lieu of repealed tax breaks - that Congress is considering to offset the staggering costs of a war the administration once promised would pay for itself. But polls show the public is beginning to see through the Bush war of choice that has became a nightmarish necessity to keep Iraq from teetering into an abyss and taking the region down with it.

But after more than two years of troops fighting and dying in a conflict with no foreseeable end, Americans are beginning to grasp the enormity of the mistake that sent nearly 140,000 soldiers to war against a nation that posed no imminent threat to national security. Worse, beyond routing a regime, the administration was stunningly remiss in planning for the peace, or the reconstruction, or the political fallout a power vacuum would stir, igniting a war within a war.

The Shiites and Kurds may hail the milestone of a new constitution passing in the recent nationwide referendum but that's only because it satisfies their demand for power in their respective ethnic and sectarian-dominated regions of Iraq. The central region of the country, with few energy or mineral resources, got the short end of the stick in the charter draft, which explains the overwhelming Sunni vote against it.

A seething Sunni minority, the backbone of the insurgency, may have even less to lose now with Iraq's governing document approved over their strong objections. From their perspective, one unified Iraq is a pipe dream promoted by outsiders oblivious to the threat of looming civil conflicts and permanent division in the country. Parliamentary elections in December may even exacerbate the resentment among Sunni Arabs if they lose more ground.

Yet the White House was quick to hail the split constitutional vote as a "landmark day in the history of Iraq" even as the Pentagon downplayed the new, sobering total of American dead. But the jig is up for the neocon architects of the Bush War in Iraq.

Milestones of the grim and preventable kind are not what America bargained for in Iraq and neither was protracted nation-building with American lives and resources. It's time for the neo-cons to get busy building something the country can support, like an exit strategy.



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