by Bill Loskot & r & Since the death toll for U.S. forces in Iraq passed the 2,000 mark, defenders of the war have struggled to minimize the importance of this sad milestone. Scholars of war and others have tried to put this issue in "perspective" by noting that U.S. forces in earlier wars paid a far dearer price in lives on such hallowed battlefields as Normandy, Okinawa, the Bulge, the Chosin Reservoir and Khe Sanh, among others. It's as if present-day Americans -- their support for the war plummeting -- are acting like wusses, bearing in mind the sacrifices of previous generations.

Well, perhaps willingness to shed the blood of our children (someone else's children, for most) is the real litmus test for patriotism in the age of terror. But aren't Americans entitled at least to ask what is the purpose, what is the trade-off, for spending the lives of two young Americans and about $200 million in treasure every working day of this war?

The war's purpose has been a slippery commodity since before it ever started. From eliminating Saddam's WMD, to "Remember 9/11!," to saving Iraqis from a tyrant, to jump-starting democracy in the Middle East, to fighting the central battle in the war on terror, the Administration's war rationale has bobbed and weaved with the ups and (more often) downs of the past three years. In recent months, President George W. Bush and his senior policymakers have preferred to respond to the "why" question in clich & eacute;s and sound bites like "stay the course" and "freedom isn't free" and "if we don't stop them over there..."

However, when pressed by wary senators not in the mood for sound bites, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, among other administration representatives, indicated that the U.S. military presence in Iraq must continue indefinitely in order for Iraqi democratic institutions to continue to mature and for Iraqi security forces to be trained to replace U.S. forces. Opposition to this point of view is increasing on both sides of the political aisle, including from such traditionally hawkish figures as Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). Why are longtime war advocates jumping ship?

One reason might be that Iraq's much ballyhooed march toward democracy is beginning to look a lot more like the run-up to civil war. President Bush has effusively praised the vote ratifying Iraq's constitution, but what does it actually accomplish? Well, there are a lot of nice words about individual freedoms and ethnic and gender rights, but, notably, the document codifies the creation of Shiite and Kurdish "autonomous areas" (co-located with most of Iraq's oilfields), which will largely be independent of the new Iraq's weak central government. The other principal community, the Sunni Arabs -- who are primarily responsible for the deadly insurgency plaguing U.S. and Iraqi government forces -- adamantly oppose special provisions for the Shiites and Kurds and turned out in droves to vote against the constitution.

The administration desperately hopes that the Sunnis turn out to vote again in the Dec. 15 elections for a permanent government and elect their own representatives to lobby in the new parliament for constitutional changes more to the Sunnis' liking. But be careful what you wish for: Democracy means whoever gets the most votes wins, and the Shiites (who are keenly attuned to the desires of their key religious leaders) outnumber the Sunnis about three-to-one. The most likely result is that the Sunni insurgents will still perceive more than enough grievances to fuel attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces through the foreseeable future.

Even if the politicians can't bring peace, we can still leave as soon as the Iraqi forces are ready to take over, right? Well, the problem is that Iraqi forces, according to what the top U.S. regional commander said two months ago, are still being trained to fight alongside U.S. forces -- not to replace them. Let's remember our experience with the South Vietnamese Army. After 20 years of effort, and the investment of untold billions, we ended up with an army that could fight reasonably well -- as long as it had the full gamut of U.S. support (airpower, logistics, medical evacuation, intelligence and advisors). Without U.S. support, Saigon's army snapped like a twig during the final North Vietnamese offensive in 1975.

As Murtha and others have pointed out, the U.S. military presence hinders the Iraqis' ability to take the necessary steps toward stabilizing their own country. The community leaders -- Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds -- are insulated from the consequences of their political intransigence. And with every passing day, Iraqi security forces become more accustomed to acting as surrogates for the U.S. military, with advantages that won't exist after the U.S. leaves.

Falling public support for the U.S. effort in Iraq does not mean Americans lack the stomach for seeing their sons and daughters off to war when necessary. Rather, Americans are once again ahead of their leaders in realizing that sacrificing more young lives in Iraq no longer serves a meaningful purpose. All it does it to allow those leaders to avoid facing up to their own mistakes.

Bill Loskot, a Spokane resident, was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer from 1974-2001. He can be contacted & lt;a href=" " & via email & lt;a & .

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