Australian political life reacted in silence this week as US military deaths in Iraq reached a melancholy milestone. On Tuesday morning a homemade bomb killed an American soldier north of Baghdad and wounded two others. His death, reported The New York Times, meant more US troops had now died keeping 'the peace' in Iraq than had died fighting 'the war'. The soldier was the 139th to die since May 1. That was the day George Bush declared, to orchestrated fanfare, the end of 'major combat operations'. A total of 138 had died in the six preceding weeks of the US/British invasion. Iraq's casualties, dead and wounded, military and civilian, were estimated to exceed 20,000.
Yet Iraq as an issue has all but vanished here. John Howard and Simon Crean, both burnt by flawed judgement, want to keep it that way. I'm not aware a politician anywhere, state or federal, had anything to say about the significance of Tuesday's death. Most newspapers ignored it, too. The seeming indifference says as much about the degradation of the Iraq debate as it does about perceptions of its electoral dangers. Any weapon of mass destruction (apart from US firepower) has still to be found anywhere. A coherent policy stance by Labor remains just as elusive. Howard's duplicity in taking Australia into the war damaged him as much as Crean's confused, man-for-all-seasons rhetoric hurt the Labor leader.
What will each say when Bush, as he surely must, scales back the US military occupation of Iraq - estimated at 120,000 troops, costing $US4 billion ($6.24 billion) a month - in a presidential election year next year? US policy has been no more successful in securing the peace than ever it was in justifying the invasion. As The New York Times editorialised on Wednesday: 'A stable peace in Iraq cannot be won on the cheap or absent foreign partners. With the death count mounting daily, it is time for Bush to stop pretending otherwise.' You'd like to think someone in the political leadership of this country would say something as sensible.
Instead, absolute silence.
What can I add?