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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Stuck in Iraq

Democratic candidates are pinned down on how quickly they would bring troops home from Iraq. The front-runners said it could take them years.


The latest Democratic presidential debate brought into sharp focus the candidates’ disagreements on how quickly the U.S. can disentangle itself from Iraq. Long-shot candidate Dennis Kucinich stood by his promise to bring all troops home within three months, and Bill Richardson said he could do it in a year – even at the cost of leaving some military equipment behind. But Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama said they might have to keep some combat troops there in a counterterrorism role for more than four years, and John Edwards said he’d likely have thousands of non-combat troops there in a protective role. We offer no judgments about whether any of the differing positions are practical or foolish, good or bad. We note only that the candidates, under questioning by an expert moderator, spelled out their positions in fairly specific terms.


When making promises, candidates tend to use murky terms that sound good but could mean anything, letting the listener believe what they will. At the Sept. 26 debate among Democratic presidential candidates at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois once again used the term "phased redeployment," which many Democrats use to describe what they favor for U.S. troops in Iraq.

The term was popularized in Democratic circles in 2005 shortly after the release of a paper titled “Strategic Redeployment,” written by Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis of the liberal Center for American Progress. But it’s not an official military term, and its precise meaning is unclear. Republicans should know that: In 1984, the National Council of Teachers of English bestowed third place in its annual Doublespeak Award to Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for claiming that the removal of American soldiers from Lebanon was a redeployment and not a withdrawal. Nevertheless, Republicans have been quick to characterize the phrase as a euphemism for “retreat.”

But what exactly would each of the Democratic candidates do if elected president? Now, thanks to insistent questioning by NBC News’ Tim Russert, the debate moderator, we know what the candidates say they would do, at least, with a fair amount of precision. Some Democrats would take years longer than others to bring home all the troops. Here’s what each of them said when Russert asked if they could promise to have all U.S. troops out of Iraq within four years of taking office:

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich said he’d get all troops out within three months of taking office:

Russert: You’ll pledge to have all troops out by January of 2013?
Kucinich: By – by April of 2007, and you can mark that on your calendars if you want, to take a new direction.
Russert: Well, it’s September of ’07 now, so we’re going to have a problem. (Laughter.)
Kucinich: Well, make that – make that 2009.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would get all troops out within one year, by January 2010, even at the expense of abandoning some military equipment:

Russert: How can you do it in one year?…
Richardson: This is what I would do. I would bring them out through roads through Kuwait and through Turkey. It would take persuading Turkey. The issue is light equipment. I would leave some of the light equipment behind.

Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut promised all troops out sometime during the four-year term:

Russert: Will you pledge as commander in chief that you have all troops out of Iraq by January of 2013?
Dodd: I will get that done.
Russert: You’ll get it done.
Dodd: Yes, I will, sir.

Former Sen. John Edwards said he couldn’t promise to get all U.S. troops out in four years, but he said he’d leave behind only a few thousand and none in a combat role:

Russert: Senator Edwards, will you commit that at the end of your first term, in 2013, all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq?
Edwards: I cannot make that commitment…. I will immediately draw down 40 [thousand] to 50,000 troops and, over the course of the next several months, continue to bring our combat troops out of Iraq until all of our combat troops are in fact out of Iraq. [But we] will maintain an embassy in Baghdad. That embassy has to be protected. We will probably have humanitarian workers in Iraq. Those humanitarian workers have to be protected. I think somewhere in the neighborhood of a brigade of troops will be necessary to accomplish that – 3,500 to 5,000 troops.

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York said that her "goal" is to have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2013 but that she can’t promise that would happen. And some combat troops might remain.

Clinton: Well, Tim, it is my goal to have all troops out by the end of my first term. But I agree with Barack. It is very difficult to know what we’re going to be inheriting…. I will immediately move to begin bringing our troops home when I am inaugurated…. [But there] may be a continuing counterterrorism mission, which, if it still exists, will be aimed at al Qaeda in Iraq. It may require combat, Special Operations Forces or some other form of that, but the vast majority of our combat troops should be out.

Sen. Barack Obama took a very similar position, saying some U.S. troops would remain for an indefinite period for "counterterrorism activities," which we presume means combat troops.

Russert: Will you pledge that by January 2013, the end of your first term more than five years from now, there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq?
Obama: I think it’s hard to project four years from now, and I think it would be irresponsible. We don’t know what contingency will be out there. What I can promise is that if there are still troops in Iraq when I take office [and] if there’s no timetable [for withdrawal], then I will drastically reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians and making sure that we’re carrying out counterterrorism activities there.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said U.S. troops would remain if a political settlement is reached to end civil violence, but otherwise he would bring them back.

Biden: If in fact there is no political solution by the time I am president, then I would bring them out because all they are is fodder. But … [if] you have a stable Iraq like we have in Bosnia – we’ve had 20,000 Western troops in Bosnia for 10 years. Not one has been killed – not one. The genocide has ended. [But] I would make a commitment to have them all out if there is not a political reconciliation, because they’re just fodder.

Former Sen. Mike Gravel didn’t say directly how quickly he could get troops home if he is elected, but he said Clinton, Obama and Biden should filibuster until President Bush agrees to bring home troops now:

Russert: Senator, are you suggesting that these candidates suspend their campaigns, go back to Washington and for 40 consecutive days vote on the war?
Gravel: If it stops the killing, my God, yes, do it!

Factual Bobbles
The candidates’ specifics on their plans for Iraq were more enlightening, we thought, than the factual stumbles. But we did find a few missteps:
  • Edwards overstated his own proposal when he said, "I will say to the Congress … you lose your health care" unless it passes universal health care by July 2009. That’s an empty threat, since no president has the authority to strip members of Congress of health insurance which is given to them by federal law.When we asked Edwards’ staff what he was talking about, they sent us a recent press release that says Edwards plans to introduce legislation that would take such action. He would have been more accurate to say in the debate that he would ask Congress either to grant health care to all citizens or give it up for themselves.
  • Dodd inflated the number of annual deaths from car crashes when he said “50,000 people lose their lives in automobiles every year…many of them because of the use of alcohol.” Actually, 42,642 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2006, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which includes accidents involving trucks, buses, motorcycles and pedestrians. Narrowing the figure down to passenger vehicle occupants (those who actually died "in automobiles") yields a crash-related body count of 30,521. It’s true that 41 percent of the total vehicle fatalities were alcohol-related.
  • Biden gave a figure many times too high when he claimed that 300,000 babies are born with deformities each year in the U.S. “because of women who are alcoholics while they’re carrying those children to term.” According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 40,000 babies per year suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Meanwhile, 1 in 33 babies suffer from a birth defect of any kind, roughly 120,000 babies per year. Both numbers are far below the 300,000 Biden cites as being born specifically to alcoholic mothers. The statistics may understate the totals, as the CDC says many birth defects aren’t readily apparent when the birth certificate is prepared. Still, we’re unable to find any support for Biden’s 300,000 figure.
  • We also caught moderator Russert giving an unfair characterization of Kucinich’s record as mayor of Cleveland. Russert said he “let Cleveland go into bankruptcy, the first time that happened since the Depression. The voters of Cleveland rewarded you by throwing you out of office and electing a Republican.” Cleveland didn’t go bankrupt in the late ’70s during Kucinich’s tenure as mayor; it went into default on loans from city banks. He was subsequently voted out of office in favor of Republican George Voinovich. But the story doesn’t end there.The city went into default when Kucinich refused to sell the publicly owned electric utility to its private competitor as demanded by a bank holding the city’s credit line. But in the 1990s, Kucinich was vindicated. In 1998, the city passed a resolution that said the “City Council hereby extends its deep appreciation to Dennis J. Kucinich for having the courage and foresight to refuse to sell the city’s municipal electric system." A 1993 Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial estimated that Kucinich’s action would eventually help save the city’s families $200 a year, and it pointed out that the bankers who pressured Kucinich to sell to a private energy company had a stake in that same company.

– by Brooks Jackson, with Viveca Novak, Justin Bank, Jess Henig, Emi Kolawole, Joe Miller and Lori Robertson


Correction: In our original piece, we repeated Tim Russert’s assertion that the city of Cleveland went bankrupt when Kucinich was mayor. An alert reader e-mailed to say that Russert was wrong: The city actually went into default. Indeed, according to the Ohio Historical Society and news reports, Cleveland was in default on loans from city banks. The article has been changed to reflect this correction.


Korb, Lawrence and Katulis, Brian. “Strategic Redeployment: A Progressive Plan for Iraq and the Struggle against Violent Extremists.” Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2005.

"State Department Wins Doublespeak Award." UPI. 16 Nov. 1984

United States, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Fatality Counts and Estimates of People Injured for 2006.” Sept. 2007.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Center for Excellence. “The Physical Effects of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.” 2007.

Martin, Joyce A.; Hamilton, Brady E.; et al. “National Vital Statistics Reports. Births: Final Data for 2004.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 29 Sept. 2006.

Marrison, Benjamin. “West Siders to Get Cheaper Electricity.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland). 18 May 1993.

O’Malley, Michael. “Kucinich Wanted on Mayoral Wall.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland). 16 Dec. 1998.

Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “Past Defeat and Personal Quest Shape Long-Shot Kucinich Bid.” The New York Times. 2 Jan. 2004.