7/15/08—The Washington Post reported on July 15 that the public is evenly split between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama's positions on ending the Iraq War. But the paper arrived at that conclusion based on a deceptively worded poll question.
Under the headline "Poll Finds Voters Split on Candidates' Iraq-Pullout Positions," the Post reported that their new poll "finds the country split down the middle between those backing Sen. Barack Obama's 16-month timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and those agreeing with Sen. John McCain's position that events, not timetables, should dictate when forces come home."
In the second to last paragraph, the Post noted, "This is the first time the Post/ABC poll has squared the two candidates' withdrawal plans against each other." But the question the Post asked did not actually "square" the candidates' plans; the Post offered a more or less accurate view of Obama's position, contrasted with a description of McCain's plan that seemed designed to attract increased support:
Obama has proposed a timetable to withdraw most U.S. forces from Iraq within 16 months of his taking office. McCain has opposed a specific timetable and said events should dictate when troops are withdrawn. Which approach do you prefer--a timetable or no timetable?
The implication, of course, is that Obama favors one sort of withdrawal, while McCain favors another. But that is a misleading characterization of McCain's position, which can be read at his campaign website:
John McCain believes it is strategically and morally essential for the United States to support the government of Iraq to become capable of governing itself and safeguarding its people. He strongly disagrees with those who advocate withdrawing American troops before that has occurred.McCain added:
It would be a grave mistake to leave before Al-Qaeda in Iraq is defeated and before a competent, trained and capable Iraqi security force is in place and operating effectively.
Our goal is an Iraq that can stand on its own as a democratic ally and a responsible force for peace in its neighborhood. Our goal is an Iraq that no longer needs American troops. And I believe we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine. But I do not believe that anyone should make promises as a candidate for President that they cannot keep if elected.
From his own campaign statements, withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq would not seem to be a high priority for McCain, who has often stressed the need to "win" the Iraq War. Though he has cautioned against making predictions, McCain has said he believes victory will come by the end of his first term: "By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won," McCain explained in a May 15 speech. Asked about his position later that day, McCain elaborated (Associated Press, 5/15/08): "It's not a timetable; it's victory. It's victory, which I have always predicted. I didn't know when we were going to win World War II; I just knew we were going to win."
But even "victory" would not necessarily mean withdrawal for McCain; he has said that he would be happy with a 100-year military presence in Iraq (Think Progress, 1/4/08):
As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, it's fine with me and I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al-Qaeda is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day.
The Post could have presented the issue the way other recent polls have done:
"If you had to choose, would you rather see the next president keep the same number of troops in Iraq that are currently stationed there, or would you rather see the next president remove most U.S. troops in Iraq within a few months of taking office?"--Pew Research Center (6/18-6/29/08):
Keep same number: 33 percent
Remove most: 64 percent
"Do you think the U.S. should keep military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized, or do you think the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible?"--Time (6/18-6/25/08):
Keep in Iraq until stabilized: 43 percent
Bring home as soon as possible: 52 percent
"Do you believe that the United States should bring most of the troops home from Iraq in the next year or two, or should the U.S. wait until Iraq is relatively stable, even if it takes four years or more?"Or the Post could have used language similar to its own previous Iraq poll (6/12-15/08):
In next year or two: 56 percent
Wait until stable: 39 percent
"Do you think the United States should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties; OR, do you think the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further U.S. military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there?"
Keep forces: 41 percent
Withdraw forces: 55 percent
Any of these formulations would be a more honest way of describing McCain's actual view on the war. Instead, the Post seemed to prefer framing the issue in a way that seemed to validate the media's position that withdrawing from Iraq any time soon is irresponsible (Extra!, 11-12/07).
Ask the Washington Post why it asked a misleading poll question about Obama and McCain's positions on the Iraq War.
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This story was published on July 16, 2008.