“President Obama ended the Iraq War…Mitt Romney would have left thirty thousand troops there … and called bringing them home ‘tragic.’ Obama’s brought thirty thousand soldiers back from Afghanistan. And has a responsible plan to end the war. Romney calls it Obama’s ‘biggest mistake.’”

— Voiceover from a new Obama campaign television ad

On the eve of the final presidential debate — which focused on foreign policy — the Obama campaign released a new television ad that uses Mitt Romney’s words to indict how he would have handled the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the president echoed some of those claims during the debate:

“What I would not have had done was left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. And that certainly would not help us in the Middle East.”

— Obama

“I’m sorry, there was an effort on the part of the president to have a status of forces agreement, and I concurred in that, and said that we should have some number of troops that stayed on. That was something I concurred with.”

— Romney

But both campaigns have often taken their opponent’s words out of context. Is that the case here as well?

The Facts

Ending the war in Iraq was a central Obama campaign promise in the 2008 election. But Romney is correct that the Obama administration tried to negotiate a “status of forces agreement” (SOFA) with the Iraqi government that would have allowed the U.S. to keep troops in Iraq after an earlier agreement reached by the Bush administration lapsed at the end of 2011.

The two sides could not reach agreement on immunity for U.S. troops, but up until the end, the administration was willing to keep 3,000 to 4,000 troops in Iraq. That’s less than 10,000, but news reports at the time said that military commanders had wanted to keep 14,000 to 18,000 troops in Iraq. It’s unclear how hard Obama pressed for a deal; he only had two conversations with the Iraqi president, leaving most of the negotiations to Vice President Biden.

When Obama announced he was withdrawing all U.S. troops after he failed to reach a new SOFA deal with the Iraqis, Romney criticized the outcome of the negotiations:

“It is my view that the withdrawal of all of our troops from Iraq by the end of this year is an enormous mistake, and failing by the Obama administration.The precipitous withdrawal is unfortunate -- it’s more than unfortunate, I think it’s tragic. It puts at risk many of the victories that were hard won by the men and women who served there.”

In other words, the phrase “tragic” referred to the failure to not reach a deal — not bringing the troops home. Here’s how Romney put it on Fox News Sunday on Dec. 18, 2011:

“We’re, of course, very happy to see our troops come out. But I think you’re going to see another lesson learned. I think we’re going to find that this president by not putting in place a status in forces agreement with the Iraqi leadership has pulled our troops out in a precipitous way and we should have left 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 personnel there to help transition to the Iraqis’ own military capabilities. I’m very concerned in this setting. I hope it works out. But I’m concerned.”

That’s where the “30,000 troops” comes from — it was an upper range figure. In other interviews, Romney also said he would have preferred to have left 10,000 to 30,000 troops in Iraq. The mid-range of that point, of course, is what military commanders wanted.

In other words, Obama has spun a diplomatic failure — an inability to reach a deal with Iraq — into a “mission accomplished” talking point.

During the debate, in fact, Obama made a dubious claim that having any troops in Iraq “would not help us in the Middle East.”

Since the departure of U.S. troops, the United States has lost leverage in Iraq. For instance, Iran uses Iraqi airspace and convoys on the ground to ferry arms and military equipment to the beleaguered regime in Syria — a government that Obama says must fall.

As for Afghanistan, here again we have another out-of-context quote. The ad makes it appear as if Romney is criticizing the plan to withdraw U.S. forces by 2014, calling it Obama’s “biggest mistake.”

Actually, Romney in a pair of interviews referred to Obama’s “biggest mistakes,” which included announcing dates when the surge would end and when combat operations would end. Those are tactical questions. Critics say announcing a withdrawal date simply signals to insurgents how long they have to hang in there before the Americans leave; supporters say it motivates the Afghan government to improve its forces. But in any case it is not a criticism of ending the war.

Romney has at times been vague as to whether he would prefer fighting to continue past 2014, but in Monday’s debate he said he agreed with the current plan: “We’re going to be finished by 2014, and when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.”

The Pinocchio Test

The Obama campaign frequently cries foul when it believes Romney has twisted Obama’s words. But here the Obama campaign, in a negative way, gives as good as it gets.

Three Pinocchios

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