Seeking Perspective on the U.S. Death Toll in Iraq

It's been a brutal month for American soldiers in Iraq; but it would be a mistake to think that it's the number of deaths alone that is creating the sense of national urgency to get out. Given the right circumstances, Americans are quite prepared to tolerate far higher casualties. Roughly 43,000 people die on our roads and highways every year.

Considerable effort is expended to bring that number down: Our vehicles are increasingly built to withstand crashes. We seem to have made real progress in persuading drivers to wear seatbelts and not to consume alcoholic beverages when they're about to get behind the wheel. Law enforcement does what it can to reduce speeding. Having said that, the number of driving fatalities every year remains stubbornly constant.

Apparently, 43,000 deaths a year is a price we are prepared to pay for the benefits that motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses provide. Those benefits are such, that no politician in recent memory has seriously suggested getting rid of all motor vehicles. It simply wouldn't happen. Our economy would come to a grinding halt. The impact on the national interest would be devastating.

In another week or so, we will have lost 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. That, of course, is over a four-year period.

So, the level of outrage and the growing opposition to the Iraq war has to be connected to something other than simply the number of those killed. After all, we lose that many people in traffic accidents every month, with barely a murmur of protest.

Where the Bush administration has failed, tragically and repeatedly, is in explaining to the American public why U.S. forces were sent into Iraq in the first place, and why they must remain there now.

Certainly, the United States has a moral obligation to deal with the chaos and anarchy that were, at least partially, unleashed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But that falls into the category of something we're doing for them. The president cannot and should not expect Americans to give their open-ended support to a nation that seems overwhelmingly to regard our troops as "invaders and occupiers."

What, then? There is a reason for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq that has more to do with American interests: stability in the Persian Gulf, the world's single largest producer and exporter of oil and natural gas.

Do we know for a fact that, without U.S. troops in Iraq, that country's chaos would bleed into Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; Egypt, Syria and Jordan? No. But chances are better than even that it would — and you can throw Iran into the mix.

That is not an easy political argument to make: Blood for oil has never been a popular slogan in America. But try to separate us from our motor vehicles and you'll get a sense of where our national interests lie. And if you try to keep those vehicles running without Persian Gulf oil, you'll know that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is nowhere in our immediate future.

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