Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed hope Monday, but did not explicitly predict, that American troops would be out of Iraq by the end of President Bush’s second term.
Rumsfeld, at 72 the oldest defense secretary ever, ticked off a list of reasons he agreed to Bush’s request last week to stay in his post, including good health and a good working relationship with the president. He also said he looked forward to continuing work on unfinished Pentagon projects.
“We’ve got a lot of work that’s well along, but some of it’s not finished,” he said in an in-flight interview with reporters flying with him to Kuwait and later to Afghanistan for Tuesday’s inauguration of President Hamid Karzai. Rumsfeld said he also planned to visit India on this trip.
Rumsfeld would not say whether he plans to remain the full four years of Bush’s presidency, but in response to a question about how long U.S. troops would be in Iraq he seemed to suggest that he might.
When a reporter asked whether Rumsfeld believed the troops would be gone before the end of his term, he prefaced his answer by saying he took that to mean four years. Then he said that during his first four years in the Bush administration he had been careful not to make predictions about how long U.S. troops would have to remain in a given country, noting they stayed far longer in Bosnia than the Clinton administration had predicted when they first went in.
Then he added, speaking of whether troops would be out of Iraq within four years: “I would certainly expect that to be the case, hope that to be the case. But the answer to your question is not that. The answer is the president has said they’ll stay as long as they are needed and not a day longer.”
The Pentagon announced last week that it was increasing the number of troops in Iraq from 138,000 to a wartime high of 150,000 in January to bolster security in advance of the Iraqi elections.
Transforming military culture
More broadly, the kind of changes Rumsfeld has in mind for the Pentagon go beyond a revamping of policies, programs and procedures. They run deeper, to the heart of what he thinks will make or break the effort to transform the military establishment to handle better the security challenges of the 21st century.
“We’ve got a big job to do in the department to see that we are in a process of transforming, which is really a culture; it’s a mind-set; it’s an attitude,” he said. That includes a historic revamping of the defense personnel system to make work rules more flexible and to streamline hiring.
Asked whether he had at some point considered quitting the Pentagon, Rumsfeld said, “Certainly there were days ... ,” and his voice trailed off without completing his thought. Some in Congress demanded his resignation when the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal became public last spring.
Rumsfeld said the Iraqi national election scheduled Jan. 30 would be an important milestone. From that point forward, he said, Iraqis should gain confidence in their transitional government, and the government itself should become more capable of running its affairs without U.S. help.
“When that happens the U.S. forces and coalition forces don’t want to be there. They want to be out, and that’s where they should be, and they will be,” he said. At the same time, he acknowledged that much work remains to develop Iraqi police and other security forces to put down the insurgency.
Rumsfeld listed other major changes he wants to push forward in a second Bush term, including:
- Rebalancing the active-duty and reserve force, so that specialties like military police that currently are in high demand and residing mainly in the reserves are more readily available to deploy abroad.
- Revising all contingency plans for military crises around the world. He has said that too many of these plans are out-of-date and based on assumptions that no longer fit U.S. military capabilities.
- Repositioning U.S. forces abroad, such as has already begun in South Korea, where thousands of American troops have been withdrawn, and thousands of others will move farther away from the Demilitarized Zone, which separates South and North Korea.
- Improving U.S. troops’ ability to train foreign forces, as they are attempting to do on a large scale in Iraq and Afghanistan.