RNC Web Ad: Are Democrats Waving White Flag In Iraq?

The Republican National Committee is running an internet-based ad featuring the white flag of surrender, accusing Democrats of making defeatist statements. It shows brief snippets of recent statements by Howard Dean, Barbara Boxer and John Kerry.

The ad has become quite controversial. Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Medal of Honor winner from World War II, calls it “shameful and disgusting.” And at least one Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, called on the RNC to take the ad down, saying “I don’t want to have a campaign about who’s a patriot.”

The quotes used in the ad are accurate as far as they go, but whether they amount to advocating “retreat and defeat” is a matter of interpretation. We supply the context of each statement and additional background so that our readers may better judge the ad’s fairness for themselves.


The RNC released the 55-second ad Dec. 9, posting it on the home page of its website and saying it would also be sent to supporters, grassroots activists and all GOP state parties.

 RNC Ad “Democrats: Retreat and Defeat On Iraq”

(On Screen Text: The Democrats have a plan for Iraq Retreat and Defeat)

(On Screen: Howard Dean):

Dean:The idea that we’re going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong.

(On Screen: Barbara Boxer)

Boxer: So there’s no specific timeframe but I would say the withdrawal ought to start now, right after the elections December 15th.

(On Screen: John Kerry)

Kerry: There is no reason Bob that young American soldiers need to be going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night terrorizing kids and children, you know, women.

(On Screen Text: Our Country is at War . . .Our Soldiers are Watching . . .And Our Enemies Too . . . Message to Democrats: Retreat and Defeat is not an Option


(Paid for by the Republican National Committee.  Not Authorized By Any Candidate or Candidate Committee. www.gop.com)

The ad begins by showing text saying “Democrats have a plan for Iraq: Retreat and defeat.” A white flag waves across the screen, introducing Democratic party chairman Howard Dean saying, “The idea that we’re going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong.”

Was Dean “a little out of context?”

Dean spoke the words quoted in the ad during an interview on San Antonio radio station WOAI on Dec. 5. He also compared the Iraq conflict to Vietnam and said “America appears to have made the same mistake twice.”

Dean has since sought to clarify what he meant, and has said the quote now being used in the RNC ad is “a little out of context.”We’ve transcribed the relevant portion of that interview so that our readers can judge for themselves:

Q: Governor Dean, the key to I guess eventually getting the U.S. forces out of Iraq is going to have the Iraqis doing a better job of defending themselves and taking a greater role. Are we on the right track to achieve that goal?

Dean: Well, I think our military is working very hard to do that. But let’s not forget this is ultimately what America had to do in Vietnam. Ultimately they said we are gonna turn this over to the Vietnamese and of course the South Vietnamese couldn’t manage to take care of their own country. As I said, I supported President Bush’s, the first President Bush’s war in Iraq and I supported the President’s war in Afghanistan, but I do not believe in making the same mistake twice and America appears to have made the same mistake twice . I wish the President had paid more attention to the history of Iraq before we’d gotten in there. The idea that we’re going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong. And I’ve seen this before in my life and it cost us 25,000 brave American soldiers in Vietnam and I don’t want to go down that road again, [sic] get out of there and take the targets off our troop’s back we need to maintain a presence in the area so we can deal with terrorism but not in Iraq.

Republicans were quick to jump on Dean’s comments, forcing him back to the airwaves to clarify his previous statement. On Dec. 8 Dean appeared on CNN’s “American Morning.”  After playing an audio clip of Dean’s previous interview, CNN anchor Miles O’Brien questioned the Democratic Chairman:

O’Brien: All right. Out of context, you want to recant it or is that how you feel?

Dean: No, it was a little out of context. They kind of cherry-picked that one the same way the President cherry- picked the intelligence going into Iraq. We can only win the war, which we have to win, if we change our strategy dramatically . The Democrats are coalescing around a very different strategy. We hope the President will join us.

This is a strategy of strategic redeployment. We want to serve our troops well who are doing a fantastic job in Iraq. And if we want to win the war on terror, we cannot pursue the failed strategy we’ve pursued for the last three years in Iraq and we’ve got to start telling truth to the American people about what’s happening there. We have a plan to do that and I’d be happy to outline it for you.

Withdrawal equals “retreat?”

After showing another white flag, the ad next quotes California Sen. Barbara Boxer advocating withdrawal of US troops from Iraq: “So there’s no specific timeframe but I would say the withdrawal ought to start now, right after the elections December 15th.”  This is from a December 4, 2005 appearance on Fox News Sunday :

Boxer: They keep saying — the President says, and Rumsfeld says, that there’s 200,000 Iraqi trained troops. Fine. Let them defend their own country. We cannot do this forever. No country survives when foreign troops are in there defending the country. They have to do this.

So there’s no specific timeframe, but I would say the withdrawal ought to start now, right after the elections, December 15th. We’ve gone up before the elections, as John Kerry said. We can start bringing those troop levels down, and I’d like to start with the National Guard.

Is Boxer’s call to begin withdrawal a call for “retreat and defeat?” Worth noting is that the Bush Administration itself plans to withdraw at least 17,000 troops from Iraq after Dec. 15, and more next year if “conditions permit.”  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated this on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on Dec. 8, 2005:

Rumsfeld: We’re [at] about 155,000 [US troops].  And we’re going to go back down to our baseline of about one hundred and thirty-seven, thirty-eight thousand, after the elections. I’m sure of that.
And then, after that, we’ll look at the conditions, the circumstances, and to the extent, obviously, that conditions permit it, as the President said, I suspect that the commanders in the field would make recommendations for some reductions as the Iraqi security forces continue to grow in size and experience.

“Terrorizing” Iraqis

The last Democrat featured – after another white flag – is Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry suggesting that American soldiers are “terrorizing” Iraqi women and children. That is from a Dec. 4  interview on CBS’s Face the Nation , in which Kerry advocated transferring authority to Iraqis.

Kerry: But I think what we need to do is recognize what we all agree on, which is you’ve got to begin to set benchmarks for accomplishment. You’ve got to begin to transfer authority to the Iraqis. And there is no reason, Bob, that young American soldiers need to be going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, you know, women , breaking sort of the customs of the–of–the historical customs, religious customs. Whether you like it or not…

Q Yeah.

Kerry:Iraqis should be doing that. And after all of these two and a half years, with all of the talk of 210,000 people trained, there just is no excuse for not transferring more of that authority.

The ad concludes with text saying “Our Country is at War . . .Our Soldiers are Watching . . .And Our Enemies Too . . . Message to Democrats: Retreat and Defeat is not an Option.” As the camera pulls back, a US soldier is shown watching a screen on which the words appear. 

The Controversy

In a Dec. 11 Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the ad’s use of a white flag was inappropriate and called for his party to pull it off the Internet. 

Q:  Waving a white flag, is that appropriate?
Graham:  . . . I don’t think it’s appropriate.  Howard Dean is wrong when he says we can’t win.  It doesn’t mean he’s not a patriot. . . .  John Kerry wants to cut the force by two-thirds.  I think he’s wrong, doesn’t mean he’s not a patriot. . . .
So it is your opinion that you would prefer the Republican National Committee to pull that ad down?
  Yes.  I don’t want to have a campaign about who’s a patriot.  I want to have a campaign that would unite the country, find consensus on Iraq and talk about our political differences in terms that make us stronger, not weaker. 

Democrats, of course, expressed even stronger opinions. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii issued a statement Dec. 12 asking Bush to demand that the RNC remove the “shameful and disgusting” ad:

Inouye: The Republican Party’s latest ad is a shameful and disgusting attempt to distract the American people from the problems in Iraq. It may improve the President’s political fortunes, but the American people and our troops will pay the price. I hope that President Bush realizes how shameful it is to play politics when what we really need is leadership, and that he will direct his party to take down this ad immediately.

— by James Ficaro and Brooks Jackson



Air Marshal Shooting; Democrats on War; Minding Your Business; Grammy Awards , American Morning, CNN, 8 Dec 2005.

Interview with Barbara Boxer ,” Fox News Sunday, Fox News Network, 4 Dec 2005.

John Kerry Discusses the War in Iraq and Politics ,” Face the Nation, CBS, 4 Dec 2005.

Newsmaker Interview: Donald Rumsfeld ,” Newshour with Jim Lehrer, PBS, 8 Dec 2005.

Madeleine Albright, Lindsey Graham, Mike Allen, David Brooks & E.J. Dionne ,” Meet the Press, NBC, 11 Dec 2005

“Inouye Calls on Bush to Take Down Attack Ad, Press Release, Office of Senator Inouye, 10 Dec 2005.

Copyright 2005 Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania

Judgments expressed are those of FactCheck.org’s staff, not the Annenberg Center