WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is discussing the possibility of the United States organizing a standing international peacekeeping force that could be dispatched to trouble spots around the globe.
The force would operate outside the auspices of the United Nations and NATO and would include thousands of U.S. Army troops trained for, and permanently assigned to, peacekeeping work.
Such an undertaking would represent a major reversal by the Bush administration, which came into office deeply opposed to tying up U.S. military forces in international peacekeeping operations.
The plan would probably be opposed by the Army, which has resisted efforts to have its troops drawn into peacekeeping duties.
There are other obstacles as well. Some analysts question how many nations would sign up for such a force if it were under the control of the United States, whose willingness to collaborate with other countries is highly suspect in many parts of the world.
"It seems to me that they have now decided that this is a great opportunity for multilateralism. Who knows, maybe somebody will buy it," said retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, who commanded a tank division in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and, later, NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
With more than half the Army's deployable troops now engaged in peacekeeping and stabilization operations around the world, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and especially Iraq, the Pentagon says its purely military capabilities are stretched thin -- a problem that is widely acknowledged.
Senior Bush administration officials are coming to believe that the best solution is to create a standing constabulary force made up of troops from a range of countries -- but led and trained by the U.S.
It would be distinct from a proposed North Atlantic Treaty Organization rapid-response force and apart from the U.N., which has provided peacekeeping missions for decades.
"I am interested in the idea of our leading, or contributing to in some way, a cadre of people in the world who would like to participate in peacekeeping or peacemaking," Rumsfeld told a group of defense industry leaders at a dinner in Washington last week.
"I think that it would be a good thing if our country provided some leadership for training of other countries' citizens who would like to participate in peacekeeping ... so that we have a ready cadre of people who are trained and equipped and organized and have communications that they can work with each other."
The Pentagon has been accused of being unprepared for the postwar violence in Iraq, and Army officials have complained that they are not trained to do the kind of police work that is needed there.
"We're not terribly good at peacekeeping, so I don't know why we would be training people to be peacekeepers," said Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
But a senior defense official said, "The way Secretary Rumsfeld envisions it, anyone with concerns about U.S. peacekeeping should be assuaged, because the whole idea is for us to do less, rather than more, peacekeeping."
Though Rumsfeld has defended the military's postwar performance, he acknowledged to a questioner in the dinner audience that it would have been good to have such a force set up before the war.
"It's something that is being discussed in a very serious way by some very serious people right now," the defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But the official said Rumsfeld had not decided how many U.S. troops he would recommend allocating to such a force. Nor has the overall size of such a force, or who would pay for it, been addressed.
The idea has been broached with unidentified countries in Europe and Latin America, officials said.
Other defense officials said the force would probably require about 10,000 U.S. troops.
The notion of creating U.S. military units permanently assigned to peacekeeping was widely discussed at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, when U.S. forces found themselves increasingly involved in nonmilitary missions in such places as Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Upon taking office, President Bush promised to pull U.S. peacekeepers out of the Balkans and to launch an immediate review of troop commitments in dozens of countries, with an eye to strictly limiting overseas deployments.
But since the Sept. 11 attacks, peacekeeping has come to be viewed by Republicans as more relevant to national security. Indeed, as regards the number of soldiers engaged in peacekeeping, it is the fastest-growing mission of the U.S. military.
"We could take or leave peacekeeping operations in the 1990s -- we left Haiti, we left Somalia. The sense was that it might be regrettable in terms of local conditions but not seen as a security threat to the U.S.," said Andrew Krepinevich Jr., executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan defense think tank.