WASHINGTON Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Thursday rejected the Bush administration's vision of a decades-long U.S. troop presence in Iraq akin to South Korea and suggested a need for public benchmarks to gauge progress.
"Our objective would not be a Korea-type setting with 25-50,000 troops on a near permanent basis remaining in bases in Iraq," the former Massachusetts governor told the Associated Press.
"I think we would hope to turn Iraq security over to their own military and their own security forces, and if presence in the region is important for us than we have other options that are nearby," Romney said.
In a wide-ranging, hourlong interview with AP reporters and editors, Romney said the Bush administration would be wise to publicly disclose some goals for success in Iraq to restore public confidence. Benchmarks that would tip off adversaries, however, should remain private.
"This is a time when it would be helpful for the American people and the people of Iraq to see that we are actually making progress if that's what's happening," Romney said.
Helpful measurements could include power-sharing with the Sunnis, division of oil revenues, the status of certain militias, as well as the numbers and training levels of Iraqi military and security forces, he said.
"If you don't publish any kind of milestone or benchmark," Romney said, you leave people thinking "you're only telling us the things that you wanted to tell us."
Like his rivals in the Republican field, Romney supports the conflict and President Bush's recent troop buildup but has increased his criticism of how the administration waged the war and handled the invasion's aftermath.
Most Americans oppose the conflict and disapprove of Bush's job performance. While a majority of Republicans still back the president and the war, their continued support is not guaranteed, and some GOP leaders are growing restless.
The White House last week offered the comparison between Iraq and the Korean War as the Pentagon announced the completion of the troop buildup in Iraq that Bush ordered in January. U.S. forces have helped keep an uneasy peace in South Korea for more than 50 years.
Presidential spokesman Tony Snow says Bush has cited the Korea analogy in looking at the U.S. role in Iraq, and the president has suggested that his successor will inherit the unpopular war now in its fifth year.
Romney said the comparison sends the wrong message.
"We have communicated to the people in the region and the country that we're not looking to have a permanent presence in Iraq, and I don't think we want to communicate that we were just kidding about that," he said.
Romney noted that the United States has bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar and said: "We can have a presence in the region, but I think that at this time we need to exercise care not to communicate to insurgents something that they can use to say 'Ah ha! America does intend to be an occupier forever!"'Romney also answered questions:
On health care: "This is a topic where I don't think the Republican Party can sit on the sidelines and just say no." He boasted about passing universal health care in Massachusetts but treaded carefully when asked about a national mandate requiring all workers to have health insurance. "In our evaluation of what worked in our state, the only way it could work ... was to make sure that everybody participated in the system," he said.
On Social Security: "I will not pursue the raising-taxes option," but he would not rule out raising the retirement age, cutting benefits or creating personal accounts.
On gay rights: "If there are people ... who hate gays, than I'm not their guy," said Romney, who acknowledged he previously opposed the military's ban on openly gay service members but now: "It's working. I wouldn't change it."
On the perception he's a serial flip-flopper: "In the style of Mark Twain, I would suggest rumors of my changes in position have been greatly exaggerated."
On the Senate immigration proposal: "It's Washington coming together and reaching a great compromise that doesn't work." He said the United States must "replace gradually and humanely people who are here working illegally today with our own citizens and with legal immigrants."