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On the day President Obama unveiled his strategy for pulling out of Iraq, Sen. John McCain offered tepid support from the Senate floor.
"I am cautiously optimistic that the plan as laid out by the president can lead to success," McCain said on Feb. 27. "The American people should be clear: The president's plan, even after the end of its withdrawal timeline is reached, will leave in place up to 50,000 U.S. troops."
If true, that would be an important vindication for McCain, who argued during the campaign that the United States should station peacetime troops in Iraq for the long term as it has in other theaters.
"Maybe a hundred, make it 100 (years)," is how McCain put it at a campaign appearance in January 2008. "We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That'd be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed."
But did Obama really say he would leave in place 50,000 U.S. troops?
In his speech at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Obama said he would "remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months" and "retain a transitional force ... likely (to) be made up of 35-50,000 U.S. troops."
We suppose this is the basis of McCain's claim (though his office did not respond to our inquiry).
But Obama went on to offer more detail: "Through this period of transition, we will carry out further redeployments," he said. "And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011."
So McCain's claim is true only if Obama's "withdrawal timeline" ends at the start of the transitional period beginning in September 2010. That is, McCain was accurate only if he was talking exclusively about the withdrawal of combat troops.
Clearly, though, Obama laid out a more complete timeline that extends through the end of 2011, when all U.S. troops are to be out of Iraq. And that timeline effectively rebukes McCain's argument for a long-term troop presence.
In a background conversation with reporters, a senior Obama administration official said his aides had rejected the idea of a long-term peacetime presence like that in Germany and South Korea.
“The path we're on here, the path is not towards any sort of Korea model,” the New York Times quoted the official as saying. “The path is towards reducing, in a fairly substantial way, U.S. forces in 2010 and then down to what's currently anticipated, down to zero, by the end of 2011." (We prefer not to quote anonymous officials, but feel comfortable doing so here because the statement merely reinforces what Obama said in his speech.)
So it was inaccurate for McCain to suggest otherwise.
McCain may simply have been speaking imprecisely, rather than trying to claim a policy victory he has not won.
Still, we thought it important to note that on the question of a long-term troop presence in Iraq — one of the most fundamental areas of disagreement about the war among policymakers — Obama has thus far rejected McCain's vision, despite McCain's claim to the contrary. We find McCain's claim to be False.
Statement by Sen. John McCain on Iraq Troop Withdrawal Plan, news release, Feb. 27, 2009
New York Times, Obama's Speech at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Feb. 27, 2009, accessed Feb. 27, 2009
New York Times, With Pledges to Troops and Iraqis, Obama Details Pullout , Feb. 27, 2009, accessed Feb. 27, 2009
Columbia Journalism Review, The U.S., Iraq, and 100 Years , April 1, 2008
E-mail exchange with Tommy Vietor, spokesman for President Obama, Feb. 27, 2009
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