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Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll September 12, 2014

McCain: Obama never said he wanted to leave troops in Iraq

Questions about what President Barack Obama should do in Iraq now have lately been overshadowed by another question: Should Obama have left troops in Iraq after the war ended?

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has advocated for keeping residual forces in the country since he visited its capital, Baghdad, in late 2008 -- right after losing the presidential election to Obama. And he continues to argue that Obama made the wrong decision to remove all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

McCain repeated this point on Sept. 10, appearing on several news shows after Obama announced his strategy to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- the militant Islamic group that has taken control of several cities in Iraq and has beheaded two American journalists.

On CNN, he sparred with former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Carney said the decision to withdraw had been "the right approach" and said the Iraqi government had played a role in that decision.

"You know, Mr. Carney, you are again saying facts that are patently false," McCain said. "The fact is, because (Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.) and I, and (former Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.) were in Baghdad. (The Iraqis) wanted a residual force. The president has never made a statement, during that or after, that he wanted a residual force left behind."

It’s impossible to know for certain what the Iraqi government wanted, and we have limited information about conversations that happened behind closed doors in the White House. But we can check what Obama said publicly about leaving troops behind.

As far as we can tell, McCain’s right. Throughout the first few years of his presidency, Obama did not make a public statement in which he clearly expressed that he wanted to keep troops in Iraq after the agreed upon withdrawal date.

Promises, promises

First, some background.

Ending the war in Iraq was one of Obama’s principal campaign promises, and he kept that promise by removing combat troops by the end of 2010 and all other troops by the end of 2011.

Obama announced his own draw-down plans a month after taking office. "Let me say this as plainly as I can: By Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," he said Feb. 27, 2009. He also said he would keep between 35,000 to 50,000 military personnel there through the end of 2011 to train and advise Iraqi military and for counterterrorism purposes.

The 2011 deadline was spelled out in a 2008 Status of Forces Agreement between the George W. Bush administration and that of then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (who recently stepped down).

What matters for this fact-check is what happened to American troops in Iraq after Jan. 1, 2012. There was public debate among leaders on that issue throughout 2011.

Military commanders in Washington and in Baghdad pushed for a residual force of between 16,000 and 24,000 to conduct counterrorism work and train Iraqi security forces. The White House, reports show, was not open to a force that size, though they considered leaving up to 10,000 troops -- a controversial pitch that would have required approval from Iraq’s divided government to change the 2008 agreement.

However, the New York Times detailed how the one-time goal of a 10,000-person force shrank before negotiations failed altogether. According to the New York Times, "the new goal would be a continuous presence of about 3,500 troops, a rotating force of up to 1,500 and half a dozen F-16’s."

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But this was all behind closed doors and only came out later, so let’s look at what Obama said publicly.

Talking points

Although some White House officials spoke to the media anonymously about the potential to keep residual forces in Iraq, we found no circumstance in which Obama himself talked about this as a possibility. And if he had, it would have clashed with his usual talking points.

We read quite a few of Obama’s speeches and remarks from 2009, 2010 and 2011, and he repeatedly touted the complete removal of combat troops and the upcoming withdrawal of all remaining forces. Here’s a sampling:

In a speech at Cairo University in 2009, Obama said, "Iraq's sovereignty is its own. And that's why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq's democratically elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by 2012."

In August 2010, he announced the removal of all combat troops from his Oval Office desk. Then he said, "Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year."

Almost exactly a year later, in August 2011, at the American Legion Conference, he said, "Having ended our combat mission in Iraq and removed more than 100,000 troops so far, we’ll remove the rest of our troops by the end of this year, and we will end that war."

And on Oct. 21, 2011, following the final negotiations with Maliki, Obama said, "Last year, I announced the end to our combat mission in Iraq. And to date, we’ve removed more than 100,000 troops. … So today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over."

A spokeswoman with the National Security Council did, though, point us to Obama’s president-elect platform from 2008, which said, "a residual force will remain in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al Qaeda in Iraq and protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel."

However, it’s possible that this was referring to the transitional forces that would stay between the end of the combat mission in 2010 and the complete withdrawal in 2011.

Obama also said in a June 19, 2014, press conference, "We offered a modest residual force to help continue to train and advise Iraqi security forces." But as far as we can tell, if this is the case, he did not talk about this to the public during the negotiations.

In fact, Carney, who was Obama’s press secretary then, said something of the opposite to the press.

Throughout the summer of 2011, Carney told reporters that they would consider leaving forces in Iraq if, and only if, the Iraqi government requested it. But otherwise, they would go ahead with the agreed upon plan and leave by the end of 2011.

"We continue to work under the status of forces agreement that we have with the Iraqi government, that will result in full withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of this year," Carney said in August 2011, in response to a question of whether or not the withdrawal was slowing down. "We have said in the past that we will listen to -- consider any request that the Iraqi government might have to further our engagement with Iraq militarily, just in terms of what we might do there. But that has not been forthcoming, and we are on track to withdraw by the end of the year."

Our ruling

McCain said Obama "has never made a statement ... that he wanted a residual force left (in Iraq)."

Obama’s president-elect platform made a vague comment about leaving residual forces, and it seems that the White House -- behind closed doors -- considered it extensively. But we found no public statements of Obama saying he wanted to leave troops in Iraq past the agreed upon withdrawal date in the months leading up the war’s end. He repeatedly asserted that troops would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

McCain’s claim is accurate but requires additional information, so we rate it Mostly True.

Our Sources

CNN, Anderson Cooper 360, Sept. 10, 2014

PolitiFact, "Obama wanted to keep 10,000 troops in Iraq, ABC's Raddatz claims," Aug. 24, 2014

PolitiFact, "Last of the "combat" troops leave Iraq; peacekeepers stay behind," Aug. 20, 2010

Washington Post, "A Chance for Consensus on Iraq," Dec. 21, 2008

Washington Post, "Obama wants to keep 3,000-5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq into 2012," Sept. 7, 2011

Washington Post, "Refereeing the John McCain-Jay Carney spat over Iraq," Sept. 11, 2014

New York Times, "In U.S. Exit From Iraq, Failed Efforts and Challenges," Sept. 22, 2012

White House, "Responsibly Ending the War in Iraq," Feb. 27, 2009

White House, Status of Forces Agreement, 2008

White House, "Remarks by the President on the Situation in Iraq," June 19, 2014

White House, press briefing, Aug. 4, 2011

American Rhetoric, "A New Beginning: Speech at Cairo University," June 4, 2009

American Rhetoric, "Address to the Nation on the End of Operation Iraqi Freedom," Aug, 31, 2010

American Rhetoric, "Address to the American Legion Conference," Aug. 30, 2011

American Rhetoric, "Speech on Ending the War in Iraq Responsibly," Oct. 21, 2011

Change.Gov, The Obama-Biden Plan - Iraq, Nov. 2008

Email interview, Caitlin Hayden, NSC spokeswoman, Sept. 11, 2014

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