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. Defense Secretary 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 a cut-and-run approach 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.

On 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 water on the bathroom floor of the Hyatt Regency and broken my hip. At this writing, I am still a patient at Doctors Hospital here.

On "Capital Gang," moderator Mark Shields noted to Mehlman that I had reported that "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's 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 that day 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 United States 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:

"That part of the world tends not to be perfectly peaceful. . . . It never will be, is my view. And do I think that when we leave, it'll be a perfectly peaceful situation? No, I think it'll be a situation where the Iraqis have developed the ability to manage their situation from a security standpoint. And we will have a mutual agreement that it makes sense now to bring down the coalition forces and leave."

Rumsfeld's carefully parsed prose was almost exactly what my administration sources had put more bluntly. When Cosby asked Rumsfeld whether the United States might "start to pull out" after the Iraqi elections next year, he replied: "We've already started. We had over 150,000 troops there originally. We're down to 137 [thousand] right now."

There was no talk of "victory" by the defense secretary. The closest he came was saying "we're going to win" by holding Iraqi elections despite insurgents' efforts to block the vote. In public comments on Sept. 24, Rumsfeld conveyed his goal: "An Iraq that was a single country, not broken in pieces; that was at peace with its neighbors and didn't have weapons of mass destruction; and that fashioned a government that was respectful of the various women, religious groups, all the diversity that existed in that country."

In asserting that the United States had not fashioned a "template" for Iraq, Rumsfeld suggested a war without clear victory. Whoever wins the election Nov. 2, it is hard to imagine the winner condoning an endless war in Iraq that would mean long casualty lists unacceptable to Americans.

{copy} 2004 Creators Syndicate Inc.