WASHINGTON — Four thousand.

When U.S. military deaths in Iraq hit a round number, as happened Sunday, there’s usually a week or so of intense focus on the war — its bogus rationale, its nebulous aims, its awful consequences for the families of the dead. Not likely this time, though. The nation is too busy worrying about more acute crises, some of them real — the moribund housing market, the teetering financial system, the flagging economy — and some of them manufactured, such as the shocking revelation that race can still be a divisive issue in American society.

So the fact that 4,000 men and women serving in the U.S. armed forces have been killed in Iraq is somehow less compelling than the zillionth playing of snippets from a sermon that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright preached more than six years ago.

For now, that is: Sooner or later, attention is bound to turn back to the war and the stark choice voters will face in November.

It may happen sooner. A few weeks ago, it looked as if Iraq might be entering another cycle of headline-grabbing violence. Now, the increase in mayhem is clear. On Sunday alone, more than 60 people were killed in several incidents, including a car bombing. Insurgents even sent rockets crashing into Baghdad’s ostensibly secure Green Zone, a rare occurrence. While the violence hasn’t risen to the levels at this time a year ago, when the country seemed to be coming apart, it is clear that both civilian and military deaths are on the rise.

Dick Cheney, who long ago told us that the insurgency was “in the last throes, if you will,” was asked last week about polls showing that two-thirds of Americans don’t think the fight in Iraq is worth it. Cheney’s response: “So?”

At least Cheney was being candid, if breathtakingly arrogant. He and George W. Bush have never cared what the American people might think about this elective war. A little bamboozling was necessary at the beginning — overblown claims about weapons of mass destruction, mushroom clouds and being “greeted as liberators” by smiling Iraqi children. Once that hurdle was surmounted, and once Saddam Hussein’s government had been destroyed, there was essentially nothing anyone could do to force the Bush administration to bring the war to an end.

Let me revise that, since on three counts it’s not quite accurate. First, the war did end once, an occasion Bush marked nearly five years ago in his “Mission Accomplished” speech; according to Agence France-Presse, 97 percent of the 4,000 U.S. military deaths in Iraq came after Bush stood on the deck of that aircraft carrier and declared major combat operations over. Second, we keep calling this conflict a war but it’s really an occupation, though the Bush administration doesn’t like to use that word; it must not test well with focus groups. Third, the American people did what they could by snatching control of Congress from the Republicans. But even if Democrats in the House had the political will to end the occupation by cutting off funding, they don’t have the 60 votes they would need in the Senate.

That’s how we arrived at 4,000. And from the way John McCain talks, there’s no telling what round-number milestones we’d have to mark if he were to become president.

On Iraq, McCain vows to continue the occupation as long as it takes for the United States to win. Like Bush and Cheney, he is quick to define any kind of withdrawal as defeat — but he makes no real attempt to describe what victory would look like. He at least realizes that the repressive and ambitious government of Iran has been the real beneficiary of the Bush administration’s blundering in Iraq — but the way he talks about Iran is just plain frightening.

The 71-year-old McCain’s recent misstatement that al-Qaida terrorists were being aided by the Iranian regime — quickly corrected by Sen. Joseph Lieberman in a whispered aside — might have been just a senior moment. Or it might have reflected an intention to do something precipitous about Iran’s growing stature in the region. Either way, scary.

It’s understandable that Americans are riveted by the most exciting presidential nomination campaign in decades. It’s natural that they’re worried about the shrinking value of their homes and their 401(k) plans. Come the fall, though, they’re going to have to decide on Iraq: Bring the troops home, as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both say they will do. Or keep them in, as McCain pledges — and watch the numbers continue to rise.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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