CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- When I reported in this column Sept. 20 that there is "strong feeling" in the "Bush administration policymaking apparatus" that "U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year," Republican politicians -- most recently Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman -- disagreed. But Don Rumsfeld has not contradicted me.
Nobody from the administration has officially rejected my column. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, in his usual teasing of words, says pretty much what I did. While politicians such as Mehlman talk about "victory" in Iraq and President Bush implies it, war planners such as Rumsfeld do not. These realists recognize that aims in this ugly war have been reduced.
Neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry, as campaigners, wants to risk advocating cut-and-run in Iraq. With the war looming as the decisive issue in this presidential campaign, neither candidate dares appear a defeatist. But it is a given that, whoever the winner is, he will not risk losing another 1,000 troops if that is what's needed to win the war.
Last Saturday, Mehlman appeared on CNN's "Capital Gang" as my temporary replacement (at my suggestion). In Coral Gables to cover the first Bush-Kerry debate, I had stupidly slipped on the water on the bathroom floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel and broke my hip. At this writing, I am still a patient at Doctors Hospital in Coral Gables.
On "Capital Gang," moderator Mark Shields noted to Mehlman that I had reported "there are plans afoot in this administration to get out of Iraq next year." The campaign manager replied: "I hate to say this about someone who is recovering, and I am a big Bob Novak fan. That particular column was inaccurate. There is no plan. There is only one plan, and the plan is for victory. And the reason is because there's no alternative."
I believe Mehlman is doing an outstanding job in the Bush campaign, and I am a Ken Mehlman fan. However, Mehlman would have realized I was not inaccurate if he had heard Rumsfeld's interview earlier Saturday with Rita Cosby of Fox News -- a remarkable performance that should have received more attention.
When asked by Cosby whether there would be "total elimination of U.S. troops," Rumsfeld replied: "We want to go in and be helpful and leave. That's basically the American way." In Rumsfeldese, that was pretty close to a flat "yes."
The interview really got interesting when Cosby asked what would be the earliest the U.S. could pull troops out of Iraq. Predictably, the cautious Rumsfeld would set no date. But what he did say was not far from what my sources had told me: