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In his recently released book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney unloads on President Barack Obama. So on the Today Show on March 2, 2010, host Matt Lauer opened up his interview of Romney by asking if Obama has done anything right in the last year.
"No question about it," Romney said. "He's done several things well. Most of those things are places where he changed his view from where he had during the campaign. So, for instance, he's left our troops in Iraq, and they're being more successful there. He boosted our effort in Afghanistan, which is the right course to take. He did not close Guantanamo, thank heavens."
That's about as backhanded a compliment as you can give. Romney says the things Obama has done right are essentially all things he has changed position on since the presidential campaign. Has he?
We'll tackle these one by one.
First: Troop levels in Iraq
Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for Romney, noted that during the campaign, Obama routinely claimed the controversial troop surge in Iraq was a failure.
For example, in a July 17, 2007, interview with USA Today, Obama said, "Here's my view on the situation. There are two indisputable facts, and then there's a choice. Fact No. 1: The surge is not working. It has not changed the dynamics on the ground. It has put more U.S. troops at risk. It has not strengthened the Iraqi government. It has not quelled the antagonism between the various factions, and it has not lessened the strength of the insurgency."
But Obama never said he would immediately pull all of the U.S. troops out of Iraq. To the contrary, Obama said in that very same interview that he would withdraw troops "in a gradual fashion."
As for how quickly the troops should leave, Obama's campaign Web site said: "Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. He will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months.
At a Democratic debate in Cleveland on Feb. 26, 2008, for example, Obama said, "As soon as I take office, I will call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we will initiate a phased withdrawal, we will be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. We will give ample time for them to stand up, to negotiate the kinds of agreements that will arrive at the political accommodations that are needed."
Obama also stressed repeatedly that he would strongly consider the recommendations of his commanders on the ground before removing any troops.
So that was Obama's position in the campaign. Now, what has he done as president?
As it turns out, the drawdown of troops actually began before Obama took office. President George W. Bush began to reduce troop levels in June 2008, a full six months before Obama was sworn in.
But Obama has continued on that path of reducing troop levels. When Obama took office, the troop level in Iraq was about 137,000. It has steadily declined to its current level of 96,000, said Maj. Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Department of Defense.
In a formal announcement of a new Iraq strategy at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, on Feb. 27, 2009, Obama said the United States will remove all combat troops from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010. Obama said he planned to keep 35,000 to 50,000 military personnel in Iraq through 2011 for the purpose of "training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain nonsectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq."
Not only is the plan to remove combat troops on schedule, it's actually ahead of schedule, U.S. Gen. Ray Odierno said at a Pentagon press conference on Feb. 22, 2010.
"The original plan had us to be at about 115,000 today, and right now we're at 96(,000)," Odierno said. "So we're about 20,000 ahead of where we thought we would be when we originally built the plan, and that's based on what we've seen and what we think we need."
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said that with regard to Obama's stance on Iraq, he would "tend to agree with Gov. Romney to an extent -- though even here, it must be acknowledged, the plan that Obama inherited (and yes we're still on target) reduces forces reasonably fast. So in that regard, President Bush adopted a plan at the end of his presidency that pushed for fairly fast troop reductions -- not as fast as Obama proposed, but faster than had been expected. In other words, while Obama did change his thinking, the situation also evolved and made Obama's plan appear less radical and less different from Bush's than it once had."
When Romney said Obama had changed positions from his campaign because he's "left our troops in Iraq, and they're being more successful there," it presumes that Obama said in the campaign that he would immediately remove combat troops, or that he would remove them faster than he has. We don't think that's backed up in Obama's campaign statements. The repeated mantra of Obama's campaign regarding Iraq was largely that he would initiate a drawdown of combat forces in Iraq within about 16 months. The plan to remove forces by the end of August is a couple of months past that deadline, but it's awfully close. And now, Gen. Odierno says the withdrawal plan is even a little ahead of schedule. We think it's unfair to suggest that Obama's actions as president radically depart from his position during the campaign.
Second: Boosting the effort in Afghanistan
To back up Romney's claim that Obama has changed his view on Afghanistan, Romney's spokesman Fehrnstrom pointed to a quote Obama gave to McClatchy News Service on July 26, 2008.
"I'm not here to lay out a comprehensive military strategy," Obama said regarding Afghanistan. "That's the job of our commanders on the ground. I can tell you what our strategic goals should be. They should be relatively modest. We shouldn't want to take over the country. We should want to get out of there as quickly as we can and help the Afghans govern themselves and provide for their own security."
We note that the quote continues: "Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al-Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region. And to do that, I think we need more troops."
As a candidate, Obama promised to send "at least" two additional brigades to Afghanistan. And he repeatedly said during the campaign that Afghanistan required more troops and attention than it was receiving from the Bush administration. He said the United States "had taken our eye off the ball" by invading Iraq instead of concentrating on Afghanistan. At one point, the Obama campaign even mocked the McCain campaign for following Obama's lead on increasing troop levels in Afghanistan.
Shortly after becoming president, Obama did, indeed, order that two additional brigades be sent to Afghanistan. And then on Dec. 1, 2009, Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. In January 2009, the troop level in Afghanistan was 34,000. Today, it's 78,000.
Yes, Obama once said that strategic goals in Afghanistan should be "relatively modest," but to say that Obama's orders for more troops as president is a change in position from his campaign stance ignores Obama's many statements that more troops were needed and that greater focus needed to be placed on Afghanistan.
"Obama had always pledged to do more, and now he has tripled forces relative to what President Bush had in place at the end of 2008," O'Hanlon said.
Third: Closing Guantanamo
Here, Romney's spokesman Fehrnstrom pointed to an executive order Obama signed on his second day in office, directing the Central Intelligence Agency to shut what remains of its network of secret prisons and ordering the closing of the Guantánamo detention camp in Cuba within a year. Soon after, however, Obama's plan began to meet resistance, most notably from members of his own party who stripped millions of dollars to shutter the facility from a war funding bill. Finding a place to put the more than 200 detainees has remained an ongoing political struggle.
The self-imposed year deadline came and went, and the facility is still very much open.
So is this a departure from Obama's campaign stance, as Romney said?
During the campaign, Obama never talked about a one-year timeline. He only said he would close the facility. The one-year timeline surfaced after Obama was sworn in as president.
And the Obama administration certainly has made progress toward its ultimate goal of closing Guantanamo. On Oct. 15, 2009, the House of Representatives voted to allow some prisoners there to be temporarily transferred to the United States for prosecution. And the Obama administration has identified a prison in Thomson, Ill., that it hopes to acquire and renovate for detainees now at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Officials are working out details for funding the plan. The Senate seems amenable to the idea; in November, the Senate rejected a measure to restrict funds for the facility. There's still a long way to go before the facility is closed, but we think Obama has made enough progress that we have rated his campaign promise to close the facility In the Works.
So to sum up, while Romney offered backhanded praise for Obama's actions with regard to troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the failure to close Guantanamo, Romeny said those were all issues on which Obama changed his view from the campaign. We don't find that's accurate in any of the cases. In fact, Obama has not strayed very far from the views he expressed during the campaign. We rule Romney's statement False.
MSNBC, Video: Today Show interview with Mitt Romney, March 2, 2010
Department of Defense Web site, DOD News Briefing with Gen. Odierno from the Pentagon, Feb. 22, 2010
McClatchy, "Obama to McClatchy: Goals in Afghanistan should be modest," by Margaret Talev, July 26, 2008
PolitiFact, "Obama ballyhoos Afghan stance," by Angie Drobnic Holan, July 22, 2008
PolitiFact, "Obama's Iraq flip-flop? Nope," by Angie Drobnic Holan, July 10, 2008
USA Today, "Obama on Iowa, Iraq and the 2008 race," by Jill Lawrence, July 17, 2007
Los Angeles Times, "Obama denies wavering on Iraq," by Peter Nicholas, July 4, 2008
White House Blog, "Responsibly Ending the War in Iraq," posted by Macon Phillips, Feb. 27, 2009
Interview with Major Shawn Turner, spokesman for the Department of Defense, March 2, 2010
E-mail interview with Eric Ferrnstrom, a spokesman for Mitt Romney, March 2, 2010
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