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By Alexander Lane August 27, 2008

McCain has often opposed timelines, but not always

In his Aug. 27, 2008, speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Sen. Joe Biden characterized Sen. John McCain's position on timelines for withdrawal from Iraq as an unequivocal "no."

Here's the full context of Biden's claim:

"Should we trust John McCain's judgment when he says — when he says we can't have ... timelines to draw down our troops from Iraq, that we must stay indefinitely?" Biden said. "Or should we listen to Barack Obama, who says shift the responsibility to the Iraqis and set a time to bring our combat troops home? Now, after six long years, the administration and the Iraqi government are on the verge of setting a date to bring our troops home. John McCain was wrong, and Barack Obama was right."

But does McCain really say "there can be no timelines to draw down our troops from Iraq"?

It is true that on many occasions McCain has vociferously opposed the idea of setting a timetable — or a timeline (we believe the words are interchangeable) — for withdrawal from Iraq. During the Republican primary contest, McCain harshly criticized Mitt Romney's use of the term "timetable," saying it was "the buzzword for withdrawal." For days he carried around a note card with Romney's words to remind primary voters of Romney's endorsement of a timetable.

However, it is also true that more recently McCain has adjusted his rhetoric. In a July speech, McCain said: "I'm confident we will be able to reduce our forces in Iraq next year and our forces will be out of regular combat operations and dramatically reduced in number during the term of the next president of the United States."

And on other more recent occasions, when criticizing timelines, he has been careful to characterize them first. Here's McCain on Aug. 18: "The hard-won gains of our troops hang in the balance. The lasting advantage of a peaceful and democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East could still be squandered by hasty withdrawal and arbitrary timelines."

Note the insertion of the word "arbitrary." On other occasions McCain has criticized "artificial" timelines. But that does not mean he is opposed to any timelines at all. Rather, that language implies that if a timeline were not "arbitrary" or "artificial," McCain could support it.

Indeed, here's McCain in a CNN interview on July 25, when asked about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's endorsement of a timetable:

"He said it's a pretty good timetable based on conditions on the ground," McCain said. "I think it's a pretty good timetable, as we should — or horizons for withdrawal — but they have to be based on conditions on the ground."

That wasn't the clearest statement in the world. So ABC's George Stephanopoulos pressed McCain on the issue on This Week two days later:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama was in London this morning, and he was responding to your comments from yesterday when you said that 16 months might be a pretty good timetable in Iraq. He said, 'We're pleased to see that there's been some convergence around proposals we've been making for a year-and-a-half.'

MCCAIN: That's really good. Look, it's not a timetable, as I said. I was asked, how does that sound? Anything sounds good to me, but…

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you never used the word before.

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MCCAIN: … you know, the point is…

STEPHANOPOULOS: You made a point of never using…

MCCAIN: … I never…

STEPHANOPOULOS: … the word before.

MCCAIN: Look, I have always said, and I said then, it's the conditions on the ground. If Senator Obama had had his way, we'd have been out last March, and we'd been out in defeat and chaos, and probably had to come back again because of Iranian influence...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it does seem…

MCCAIN: But it is a — it is not a date. I want to make it very clear to you, it is not a date. It's conditions on the ground.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, you shouldn't have used the word timetable.

MCCAIN: Pardon me?

STEPHANOPOULOS: You shouldn't have used the word timetable.

MCCAIN: I didn't use the word timetable. That I did — if I did…

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, it's a pretty good timetable.

MCCAIN: Oh, well, look. Anything is a good timetable that is dictated by conditions on the ground. Anything is good. But the timetable is dictated, not by an artificial date, but by the conditions on the ground, the conditions of security.

McCain clearly was not comfortable embracing the idea of a timetable for withdrawal. But nor was he comfortable opposing it in all cases. His answers in both the CNN and ABC interviews suggest that he could be okay with a timetable if it were dependent on conditions on the ground. Biden did not acknowledge the gray area in McCain's approach to a timeline, instead implying that McCain was unequivocally opposed to any timeline at all.

Since McCain has spoken out repeatedly against timelines — but indicated he was open to them on other occasions — we find Biden's claim to be Half True.

Our Sources

Interview with McCain spokesman Brian Rogers, Aug. 27, 2008

National Journal, McCain Shows Movement on Iraq, July 29, 2008

CNN, Anderson Cooper 360, July 25, 2008

Time Magazine's The Page, Transcript of McCain on "This Week" , July 27, 2008

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More by Alexander Lane

McCain has often opposed timelines, but not always

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