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Tracking Presidential Hopefuls' Positions on Iraq


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

One key issue that defines presidential candidates this year is the war in Iraq.

HILLARY CLINTON: I've been to Iraq three times...

JOHN MCCAIN: We are succeeding in Iraq.

MITT ROMNEY: It was the right decision to go Iraq.

BARACK OBAMA: I was opposed to Iraq from the start.

SIEGEL: Either they want you U.S. forces to stay in Iraq as long as it takes to win or they want troops out as soon as possible. The rest of the debate is about how and when the candidates reach their conclusions about the war.

NPR congressional correspondent David Welna joins me now to talk about the candidates and Iraq. Hello, David.

DAVID WELNA: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: And let's start with the Democrats. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, what they want to do in Iraq and how their positions differ.

WELNA: Well, I'd say that both of them want to get out of Iraq as soon as possible. Both of them recognize that the troop escalation that began last year, known as the surge, has brought down violence somewhat in Iraq, but they both say that the surge hasn't brought the political reconciliation, that it was the stated goal.

And both of them are saying they have timetables for bringing troops out. Here's Hillary Clinton at the last Democratic candidates' debate last week in Los Angeles.

CLINTON: I will begin to withdraw troops in 60 days. I believe that it will take me one to two brigades a month depending how many troops we have there, and that nearly all of them should be out within a year.

SIEGEL: Well, how much does Senator Clinton's plan for a pullout differ from Senator Obama's plan?

WELNA: Well, they're essentially the same in their goal of a quick pullout. But while Hillary Clinton says when she'll start bringing troops home, she's refused to give a deadline for bringing them all back. And Obama, on the other hand, has talked about having all combat forces out in 16 months. And both candidates have talked about leaving behind some kind of residual force. But the two of them haven't really clashed over what they'll do in the future. Their fights over Iraq have really been all about the past. Obama never misses a chance to point out that unlike Clinton who voted in the Senate in October of 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq. He was opposed to the war from the start.

OBAMA: I think I would be the Democrat who would be most effective in going up against a John McCain, or any other Republican, because they all want basically a continuation of George Bush's policies. Because I will offer a pure contrast, somebody who never supported this war, thought it was a bad idea. I don't want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place. That's the kind of leadership I intend to provide...


SIEGEL: Now, Senator Clinton now says that had she known then what she knows now, she would not have voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq. But she has stopped short of apologizing.

WELNA: That's right. And here's how she defended her vote while debating Obama last week in Los Angeles.

CLINTON: It was a sincere vote, based on my assessment at the time, and what I believed he would do with the authority he was given. He abused that authority. He misused that authority. I warned at the time it was not authority for preemptive war. Nevertheless, he went ahead and raged one which has led to the position we find ourselves in today.

WELNA: And here's what Obama had to say about that.

OBAMA: The authorization had the title: an authorization to use military force - U.S. military force - in Iraq. I think everybody the day after the vote was taken understood this was a vote potentially to go to war. I think people were very clear about that. That...


SIEGEL: An interesting footnote to this, by the way, when the New York Times endorsed Senator Clinton, they pointed out that they urged her to vote against the authorization to go to war in Iraq. And that was their editorial position, but forgave her on that in light of other things.

On to the Republicans. John McCain said that U.S. forces should stay in Iraq as long as they are needed, whether that's a hundred years more or a thousand years more.

WELNA: Yeah. I think McCain rues the day the U.S. gave up on Vietnam where he spent 5 years as a prisoner of war. And for him, Iraq has become a test of American resolve and credibility. He argues that what Americans can't stand about having troops deployed abroad isn't that the they're there, but that that they're dying there. And here's McCain yesterday on "Fox News Sunday."

MCCAIN: Look, we're in Kuwait next to the war to Iraq. We're in Turkey. We're in Bosnia. We're all over the world. One of the obligations, unfortunately, of being a great superpower is that we have to take care of the world security. But we don't have to have casualties because we can succeed in the strategy called the surge which is now, I think, experiencing significant success.

SIEGEL: And Senator McCain accuses his rival for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney, of having talked about the secret timetables last year.

WELNA: That's right, Robert. This is what he said at the Los Angeles debate.

MCCAIN: The first word was timetables, timetables. Governor, the right answer to that question was no, not what you said. And that was we looked - we don't want to have to lay - have them lay in the weeds until we leave, and Maliki and the president should enter into some kind of agreement for, quote, "timetables."

WELNA: Well, here's what Romney actually told ABC's "Good Morning America" in an interview in early April that McCain was referring to.


ROBIN ROBERTS: Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?

ROMNEY: Well, there's no question, but that the president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn't be for public pronouncement. You don't want the enemy to understand how long they have wait in the weeds until you're going to be gone.

SIEGEL: So Romney actually seemed to want to attach some privately agreed upon conditions that triggers to any withdrawal.

WELNA: Right. In contrast to simply wanting a secret deal for a pullout as McCain accused him of saying. Romney now says, like McCain, that the U.S. should stay in Iraq as long as needed to achieve victory there. And he also says he wants another 100,000 troops added to the U.S. military, and he's proposing better benefits as a way to attract and retain them.

ROMNEY: We found in our state that we were losing enrollees for the National Guard at about 6 percent per year. And the legislature and I got together and passed something called The Welcome Home Bill. We said, you know what, if you'll sign up for the National Guard, we'll pay for entire education for four years. We'll put in some other benefits as well - life insurance and other features that we decide to pay for. And the result of that was, the next year, enrollments went up 30 percent. And so, if you want more people to sign up for the military, we have to improve the deal.

WELNA: Now, the other major Republican contender, Mike Huckabee, is also setting no timetable for withdrawing.

MIKE HUCKABEE: However long it takes to get of there with victory and with honor. We owe it to those who have gone to make sure that they did not go in vain. And we need to make sure that future sons and daughters of America don't have to go back and do it all over.

SIEGEL: That's Mike Huckabee. What about Ron Paul?

WELNA: Well, Ron Paul is the nays here on Iraq among the Republicans. And here's what he said last week at the Los Angeles debate.

RON PAUL: There was no threat to our national security. They never committed aggression. It's unconstitutional; it's an undeclared war. And we have these silly arguments going on about who said what when. I think it's time to debate foreign policy and why we don't follow the Constitution, and only go to war with a declaration of war.

SIEGEL: That's Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. David Welna, thank you for talking with us today about the candidates and their positions in Iraq.

WELNA: You're quite welcome, Robert.

NORRIS: And you can read more about where the candidates stand on the Iraq war and other issues at our Web site, npr.org/elections. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.