Media quote GOP claim that Obama reversed Iraq policy, without noting Obama's prior statements

In covering Sen. Barack Obama's comments, “When I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies,” the media have reported Republican claims that Obama reversed himself. In fact, Obama has said for months that he would set Iraq war policy in consultation with military commanders.

At a July 3 press availability in Fargo, North Dakota, Sen. Barack Obama told reporters: “When I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.” In covering Obama's comments, the media have reported Republican claims that Obama reversed himself. For example, in a post on The New York Times blog, The Caucus, reporter Jeff Zeleny quoted Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant stating: “There appears to be no issue that Barack Obama is not willing to reverse himself on for the sake of political expedience. ... Obama's Iraq problem undermines the central premise of his candidacy and shows him to be a typical politician.” Zeleny quoted Obama saying: “My position has not changed, but keep in mind what that original position was. I've always said that I would listen to commanders on the ground.” But Zeleny did not note that Obama has in fact said on multiple occasions that he would set Iraq war policy in consultation with military commanders.

Here are some examples:

  • In a March 19 speech, Obama said: “Let me be clear: Ending this war is not going to be easy. There will be dangers involved -- just as there would be dangers involved with staying indefinitely. We will have to make tactical adjustments, listening to our commanders on the ground, to ensure that our interests in a stable Iraq are met, and to make sure that our troops are secure.”
  • During a March 2 Washington Post foreign policy “Q&A,” when asked what size his proposed “over-the-horizon” force in Iraq would be, Obama responded: “The precise size of the residual force will depend on consultations with our military commanders and will depend on the circumstances on the ground, including the willingness of the Iraqi government to move toward political accommodation.”
  • During an interview on the February 5 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, when asked, "[I]s there anything that would change your position about pulling out troops ... if he [Gen. David Petraeus] convinces you that we're on the right track?" Obama began his response by saying, “Well, what I've been very clear about is that I will always listen to commanders on the ground” :

BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): Right behind you is the word “change.” When General Petraeus comes back in a month, if he talks to Barack Obama privately and shows you what we're doing over there, is there anything that would change your position about pulling out troops if he's convinced -- if he convinces you that we're on the right track?

OBAMA: Well, what I've been very clear about is that I will always listen to commanders on the ground, but ultimately the commander in chief sets the mission. And my strong belief is that we have to send a signal to the Iraqis that we are not going to be in Iraq permanently. I mean, I have a fundamental disagreement with John McCain on this.

  • Obama also said during an interview on the February 4 edition of CBS' The Early Show that he would “consult with commanders” :

HARRY SMITH (co-host): If you were to be elected president --

OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

SMITH: -- and your commanders on the ground there and your secretary of defense said, “Hold back” --

OBAMA: Right.

SMITH: -- “you can't be pulling these people out. We're going to create a civil war and a blood bath.” What would you do?

OBAMA: My job as commander in chief is to keep the American people safe. But I firmly believe that we have to send a signal to the Iraqis that it is time to withdraw. We will not have a permanent base there. We will not have a permanent occupation there.

SMITH: Even if it --

OBAMA: Within those constraints --

SMITH: Even if it meant the beginning of civil war?

OBAMA: No, no, no, no. Within those constraints, I think there is going to be some flexibility and, obviously, I would consult with commanders. We have to be mindful of the situation on the ground and what the commanders say. Having said that, what we can't do is simply say we are going to leave it open-ended, the way John McCain, for example, suggested. We might be there 50 years or 100 years. That is not going to make the American people safe over the long term, not only because of the loss of life, not only because of the anti-American sentiment that it fans and the constraints it places on our diplomacy, but also because we can't afford it. It's costing us $9 billion per month.

  • During a November 1, 2007, New York Times interview, Obama was asked: “You've argued that the United States should leave behind residual force in Iraq and the region. How large would the force be and how much would be inside Iraq versus the Persian Gulf Region?” Obama replied:

I have not ascribed particular numbers to that and I won't for precisely the reason I was just talking to Michael about. I want to talk to military folks on the ground, No. 1. No. 2, a lot of it depends on what's happened on the political front and the diplomatic front. Even something as simple as protecting our embassy is going to be dependent on what is the security environment in Baghdad. If there is some sense of security, then that means one level of force. If you continue to have significant sectarian conflict, that means another, but this is an area where Senator [Hillary] Clinton and I do have a significant contrast.

  • During the September 12, 2007, broadcast of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Obama said: “If commanders came to me and said, 'We are making progress in reducing violence,' and I see continuing political progress taking place, then obviously that's going to be weighed against the need to, I believe, have some additional troops in Afghanistan.” From the interview:

MICHELE NORRIS (host): So, in trying to determine what the U.S. footprint in Iraq would look like -- say you're in office, and your commanders, your military commanders, are telling you that progress is being made. If they're saying, “We can win this,” are you still going to draw down forces? As a commander in chief, who does not have personal military experience, are you willing to look someone like David Petraeus in the eye and say, “You're wrong. We're going to do it my way” ?

OBAMA: If commanders came to me and said, “We are making progress in reducing violence,” and I see continuing political progress taking place, then obviously that's going to be weighed against the need to, I believe, have some additional troops in Afghanistan. That's going to be weighed against our homeland security needs in the United States. I think that the overarching question is: What is going to be needed to make the United States more secure, meet our strategic interests around the world, and make sure that we are meeting the obligations that we have towards the Iraqi people?

But that is all part of a decision that the president makes in consultation with his generals, but not in deference to them. And I think one of the unfortunate aspects of the last several days and General Petraeus' testimony is the illusion that, somehow, General Petraeus has been setting policy and the president has simply been accepting those recommendations. That is not what has been taking place. The president has been laying out a mission of continuing this failed course in Iraq and General Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker have been trying to carry out that mission as best they could.

TPM Media's Greg Sargent wrote in a July 3 TPM Election Central entry, "[T]he big news orgs are already getting this wrong":

Here's the Associated Press headline and lede:

Obama opens door to altering his Iraq policy

Democrat Barack Obama opened the door Thursday to altering his plan to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq in 16 months based on what he hears from military commanders during his upcoming trip there.

That's a reckless distortion. “Alter” is a far stronger word than “refine” is. And worse, when you take the stronger word “alter” and put it next to “plan to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq in 16 months,” it makes a far, far stronger suggestion than Obama did. Obama merely said he would “continue to refine his policies.” The tone of this lede makes it sound like Obama is preparing a wholesale junking of his withdrawal plan.

Here's The Washington Post's headline:

Obama Softens on Iraq Withdrawal Timeline

This is way overstated. It states as outright fact that Obama signaled that he'd backtrack on the time-line. But that didn't happen at all. The Los Angeles Times used this formulation, too, but it at least had the decency to pose it as a question, and not state this as established fact.

From Zeleny's July 3 blog post on The Caucus:

Senator Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot sustain a long-term military presence in Iraq, but added that he would be open to “refine my policies” about a timeline for withdrawing troops after meeting with American military commanders during a trip to Iraq later this month.

Mr. Obama, whose popularity in the Democratic primary was built upon a sharp opposition to the war and an often-touted 16-month gradual timetable for removing combat troops, dismissed suggestions that he was changing positions in the wake of reductions in violence in Iraq and a general election fight with Senator John McCain.

“I've always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed,” he said. “And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.”

[...]

Republicans seized on Mr. Obama's remarks, saying he was stepping away from the position he took in the Democratic primary campaign.

“There appears to be no issue that Barack Obama is not willing to reverse himself on for the sake of political expedience,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “Obama's Iraq problem undermines the central premise of his candidacy and shows him to be a typical politician.”

Mr. Obama said such criticism was misguided, saying: “My position has not changed, but keep in mind what that original position was. I've always said that I would listen to commanders on the ground.”