"I HAVE TIME for one more question," announced Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the end of his briefing to the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a military-immersion program for civilians I participated in last week.
It was a breakfast meeting on the very first morning in a week of hands-on activities. After breakfast, I would depart on a journey that would take me 15,000 miles, visiting four countries in what the Pentagon calls the CENTCOM region, which encompasses the most dangerous spots in the world, including Iraq.
In his remarks, the secretary had observed that many of his war commanders regard Washington as the center of gravity for the war in Iraq, which was a perfect segue for what was on my mind.
"Mr. Secretary," I began, "I appreciate your service and cannot imagine the pressure one faces when serving as defense secretary at a time when the nation is at war."
I wanted him to know that what was coming was not intended as a cheap shot. Before I continued, Rumsfeld responded with a quip about his "youth" and put the room at ease.
And then I persisted.
"As you know, there is a heated debate in the country relative to the exit strategy from Iraq. I understand your reluctance to articulate when we will withdraw, but I would like to know whether somewhere in this building there is a timeline for exiting Iraq."
I thought I heard someone in the room gasp, confirmation that in certain quarters, this subject is taboo, my compliment notwithstanding.
"There are projections in this building," began the secretary, before telling me that "a timeline benefits the enemy because they can wait you out."
He said that "the conditions on the ground will determine" when we get out and that there are targets and benchmarks that Iraq must achieve before we can do so.
Which came as no surprise to me. I just wish he, or the administration, would publicly state those benchmarks so as to lend some clarity to what has become a muddled picture.
Shortly after breakfast, before boarding a C-17 at Andrews Air Force Base bound for Bahrain, I had the chance to revisit the subject with Rumsfeld on the steps of the Pentagon after a photo op.
I told him that I appreciated his answer and that I wished he would make the conditions necessary for exiting Iraq publicly known. He didn't recoil. He didn't disagree. To the contrary, he told me that that his management style in the private sector had been very goal-oriented and that it had worked well for him. I wasn't sure if he understood that I was placing emphasis on what I perceive to be a need to make sure everyone knows the benchmarks - the Americans, the Iraqis, the world - so that people know there can be light at the end of the tunnel and that the Iraqis appreciate that the day is coming when they must manage their own affairs.
When, six days later, I stepped off an airplane after a 20-hour flight, I was thrilled to read a front-page story in the New York Times that said "for the first time" the Iraqis were going to be asked to agree to a schedule of specific milestones, such as disarming sectarian militias, and a broad set of other political, economic and military benchmarks intended to stabilize the country. That is exactly what I had been hoping for.
Unfortunately, the same day's Washington Post quoted White House officials as having denied the Times story relative to the administration's drafting a timetable.
Well, here's hoping the Times got it right. And for what it's worth, my hunch, based on my brief interaction with Rumsfeld, is that it did.
The time has come to voice the exit strategy with specificity. I don't see the prospect of military defeat in Iraq, nor do the soldiers overseas at all levels with whom I spoke last week.
No, I'm not ignoring the 43-percent spike in attacks in Baghdad since summer, nor the 80-plus American deaths in Iraq this month. No one can reasonably argue that things are going well. But neither is defeat at hand - that is, so long as Americans maintain their resolve, a lack of which is the greatest enemy of all.
The reality is that five years removed from 9/11, we have resumed our 20-second-sound-bite, instant-gratification lifestyles. And in the Internet, cable TV, cell-phone world in which we live, where the war is televised in real time on MSNBC, CNN and Fox, Americans are impatiently awaiting the happy ending that comes at the end of every half-hour sitcom.
I'm not defending that mind-set. I am saying it is time to respond to it with something better than the open-ended nature of what the administration has heretofore said about where we are headed. It doesn't require hard-and-fast dates, but rather, an articulation that when "X" happens, we will do "Y," and here is a timetable that we currently believe to be realistic for achieving same.
We have more of a political than a military problem in this country right now, and for that reason, it is time for the projections to come out of the basement.