Donald Trump Says 'Everybody And His Uncle' Wants Defense Secretary Job While Visiting Troops in Iraq

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that "everybody and their uncle" wants the job of outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis during a surprise visit with U.S. troops in Iraq.

"I will say that I've got everybody—everybody and his uncle wants that position," the president said at Al Asad Air Base, where he arrived with his wife, first lady Melania Trump.

"And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt—just so I won't be criticized for that last statement," Trump added.

Trump flew to Iraq after dark on Wednesday for a holiday visit with U.S. service members, his first trip to a combat zone since taking office nearly two years ago. He remained on the ground for about three hours, greeting surprised troops and delivering an address in which he declared an end to the days of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.

"The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world," Trump said, according to USA Today. "We don't want to be taken advantage of anymore by countries that use us and use our incredible military to protect them."

Trump's remarks on the defense secretary position came a week after Mattis resigned as Pentagon chief over differences with Trump's policy on Syria, and other national security issues. A day earlier, Trump had ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, declaring that Washington had accomplished its primary goal there—the military defeat of the Islamic State.

In his resignation letter, Mattis offered to remain in his post through February to ensure an orderly transition to a new defense secretary and prepare for an upcoming NATO ministerial meeting. But Trump, in a sign of deteriorating relations with Mattis, pushed out the former Marine Corps general sooner than expected. Patrick Shanahan, Mattis's deputy since July 2017, becomes acting secretary of defense on January 1.

Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, "could be there for a long time," Trump told reporters at Al Asad on Wednesday.

"So Shanahan was at Boeing and did a great job at Boeing. He was there for a long time," Trump said, according to a White House pool report. "Boeing is a hell of a company. He did a great job. Very responsible for the success of a certain plane, the Dreamliner. And he's a respected man."

Trump faced intense criticism from Washington's foreign policy establishment over his break with Mattis and other national security aides on Middle East policy. Many have argued his Syria decision would empower U.S. adversaries such as Iran and Russia, and open the door for an ISIS resurgence in the region.

Trump defended his Syria policy in a briefing Wednesday, saying U.S. interests were no longer served by an indefinite military presence there.

"They said again, recently, 'Can we have more time?'" Trump said, referring to senior defense officials. "I said, 'Nope. You can't have any more time. You've had enough time.' We've knocked them out. We've knocked them silly.

"A lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking," he added.