Fact checking the third presidential debate
(This is an expanded version of material that originally appeared in the Oct. 23 print edition of The Washington Post.)
Foreign policy is generally a difficult area to fact check — differences can be more of opinions than numbers — but that did not stop President Obama and former governor Mitt Romney from making questionable claims.
“Just a few weeks ago, you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now…. You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day.”
“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 has the better part of this argument. Here’s what he said in his Oct. 8 VMI speech: “America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The president tried — and failed — to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.”
Romney did not technically say that troops should still be in Iraq. And Romney is correct — Obama did try to extend a status of forces agreement that had been originally signed by the Bush administration, but could not get a deal with the government of Iraq that would have given immunity for U.S. forces from prosecution under Iraqi law. So now Obama stresses the fact that he has removed all troops from Iraq, while knocking Romney for supporting what he originally had hoped to achieve.
“When the students took to the streets in Tehran and the people there protested, the Green Revolution occurred, for the president to be silent I thought was an enormous mistake.”
Romney said that Obama was “silent” on the protests in Iran, but that is not quite correct.
Obama’s response was initially muted — in part out of caution and because he was preserving the ability to relaunch negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. In Iran’s complex political system, Iran’s president is not the key figure. Instead, it is a religious leader, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On June 13, 2009, Iran announced that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a landslide victory, prompting mass protests from supporters of the key opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi.
On June, 15, when the protests were the largest since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Obama spoke: It is "up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be," he said, adding that "we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran." Obama added: "I am deeply troubled by the violence that I've been seeing on television. I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected."
Some commentators criticized Obama for making relatively weak remarks, but U.S. officials argued that he was trying to avoid having the Iranian government claim that the protests were the work of American intrigue. In an apt summation of the administration's position, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters on June 17: “We are obviously waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian processes, but our intent is to pursue whatever opportunities might exist in the future with Iran.”
Here is how Obama put it in an interview with CNBC on June 16:
"Although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual positions may not be as great as has been advertised. We've got long-term interests in having them not weaponize nuclear power and stop funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. And that would be true whoever came out on top in this election."
Obama finally toughened his stance a week later, on June 23, after more violence erupted.
“The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days,” Obama said. “I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.”
“The president said by now we’d be at 5.4 percent unemployment. We’re 9 million jobs short of that.”
Romney likes to claim that Obama promised to get the unemployment down to 5.4 percent by 2012, but it is not as simple as that.
Romney is citing a 14-page report written by two Obama aides before Obama took the oath of office, concerning a theoretical stimulus bill.
Thus, it was not an official government assessment or even an analysis of an actual plan that had passed Congress.
Still, the administration later cited the report in congressional testimony, giving it an official imprimatur. So, while Obama officials may not have “pledged” such a goal, it was certainly part of the administration’s talking points.
“With respect to what we’ve done with China already, U.S. exports have doubled since I came into office.”
Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014, but he seems to be getting ahead of himself. Exports of goods to China have gone from $69.7 billion in 2008 to $103.9 billion in 2011, according to the Census Bureau.
“I'd make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it.”
Romney appears to referring to the Iranian president’s alleged statement that he would “wipe Israel off the map.” But, as we have noted, there is actually some dispute about what Ahmadinejad said, which would make a prosecution difficult. (The Fact Checker even gave himself a Pinocchio for blithely repeating this claim in his book on Condoleezza Rice.)
Indeed, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide lists very specific acts, none which include mere threats:
“With intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
But there is another interesting wrinkle to this pledge. Presumably such a prosecution would have to be done via the International Criminal Court — which the United States under George W. Bush refused to accept. (UPDATE: Romney aides confirmed he would bring such a case via the ”World Court,” which can only mean the ICC. This is surprising given that one of his top foreign policy advisors, John R. Bolton, is such a foe of the ICC.)
“I would tighten those sanctions. I would say that ships that carry Iranian oil can't come into our ports. I imagine the E.U. would agree with us as well.”
This is a puzzling statement. No Iranian oil is coming in to the United States, and none has come here for quite some time. Ronald Reagan signed an executive order in 1987 banning all U.S. imports from Iran, and then President Bill Clinton in 1995 banned all U.S. participation in Iranian petroleum development.
Here’s how the U.S. Treasury puts it:
Goods or services of Iranian origin may not be imported into the United States, either directly or through third countries, with the following exceptions:
a) Gifts valued at $100 or less;
b) Information and informational materials;
c) Household and personal effects, of persons arriving in the United States, that were actually used abroad by the importer or by other family members arriving from the same foreign household, that are not intended for any other person or for sale, and that are not otherwise prohibited from importation; and
d) Accompanied baggage for personal use normally incident to travel.
A Romney spokesman clarified that Romney was targeting ships that at one point might carry Iran oil. “As the governor mentioned, getting Europe to come along is a major point,” he said. “Oil and tankers are fungible. They can carry non-Iranian oil, and if they are not able to transport oil back and forth between the U.S. and other countries, then they are of little use to their companies. This is a very serious sanction for these companies.”
Still, the sanctions imposed this year do prohibit tankers with Iranian oil from clearing any transactions through U.S. or European financial institutions and the sanctions have also cut off insurance for tankers. So this has already hurt tanker companies' willingness to carry Iranian crude.
“I said if I got bin Laden in our sights, I would take that shot; you said we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man.”
The Obama campaign has made far too much out of this ancient comment.
Romney made this statement in a 2007 interview with the Associated Press: “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
But Obama has ignored the rest of the interview, in which the AP quoted Romney as saying “he supports a broader strategy to defeat the Islamic jihad movement.” Just a few days later, Romney expanded on his remarks during a debate:
“We’ll move everything to get him. But I don’t want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person — Osama bin Laden — because after we get him, there’s going to be another and another. This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate.”
“Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.”
Romney says this a lot, but it is an unusual statement, considering that Syria shares no border with Iran — Iraq and Turkey are in the way — and that Iran has about 1,500 miles of coastline along the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, leading to the Arabian Sea.
Tehran certainly uses Syria to supply the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, but that has little to do with the water. The relationship with Syria could also effectively allow Iran to project its power to the Mediterranean and the border with Israel. But it is still an odd way to frame it.
“If we had taken your advice, Governor Romney, about our auto industry, we'd be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China.”
“I said these companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy. And in that process, they can get government help and government guarantees, but they need to go through bankruptcy to get rid of excess cost and the debt burden that they'd built up.”
This exchange is drawn from a headline — “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” — on an opinion article written by Romney for the New York Times. But he did not say that in the article. (He repeated the line, however, on television.)
Although “bankrupt” often conjures up images of liquidation, Romney is correct in that he called for a “managed bankruptcy.” This is a process in which the company uses the bankruptcy code to discharge its debts, but emerges from the process a leaner, less leveraged company.
Ultimately, along with getting nearly $80 billion in loans and other assistance from the Bush and Obama administrations, GM and Chrysler did go through a managed bankruptcy.
But many independent analysts have concluded that taking the approach recommended by Romney would not have worked in 2008, simply because the credit markets were so frozen that a bankruptcy was not a viable option at the time.
Here’s how the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Panel, in a unanimous finding, framed the issue in a January 2011 report: “The circumstances in the global credit markets in November and December 2008 were unlike any the financial markets had seen in decades. U.S. domestic credit markets were frozen in the wake of the Lehman bankruptcy, and international sources of funding were extremely limited.”
“Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917.”
“You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
We’ve looked at this claim by Romney before, and it’s almost as if Obama had read our column.
The historical records of the Navy show that in 1916, the Navy had 245 ships. This was also the year that President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Naval Act of 1916, which put the United States on a crash course to build a world-class navy.
But take a look at some of the types of ships on the list — steel gunboats, torpedo boats and monitors.
These types of boats aren’t on the list anymore. Instead, the current list of Navy ships includes behemoths such as aircraft carriers, “SSBN” (nuclear-powered, ballistic-missile carrying submarines) and “SSGN” (cruise-missile submarines).
In other words, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison.
The current level of ships, 285 in fiscal 2011, is actually not even the lowest since 1916. The historical list shows that the lowest ship force was reached during the Bush administration, when the number of ships fell to 278 in 2007. Given the change over time in the composition of the naval force, that probably is the most relevant comparison — and the trend line is up.
“If we take your advice with respect to how we change our tax codes so that companies that earn profits overseas don't pay U.S. taxes compared to companies here that are paying taxes. Now that's estimated to create 800,000 jobs, the problem is they won't be here, they'll be in places like China.”
Obama is quoting from one disputed study.
At issue is a Romney proposal, as part of a corporate tax reform, to allow foreign profits by corporations to be exempt from domestic tax. The Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission, frequently cited by Democrats and Republicans, recommended such a system in its report. “A territorial tax system should be adopted to help put the U.S. system in line with other countries, leveling the playing field,” the report said.
The study cited by Obama, which appeared in Tax Notes, did not actually study Romney’s plan. Moreover, it said that such a system would create 800,000 jobs overseas, but not necessarily at the expense of U.S. jobs if unemployment rates are low.
“We have every two years tests that look at how well our kids are doing. Fourth-graders and eighth-graders are tested in English and math. While I was governor, I was proud that our fourth-graders came out number one of all 50 states in English, and then also in math. And our eighth-graders number one in English and also in math. First time one state had been number one in all four measures. How did we do that? Well, Republicans and Democrats came together on a bipartisan basis to put in place education principles that focused on having great teachers in the classroom.”
“But that was 10 years before you took office. And then you cut education spending when you came into office.”
As he did during a previous debate, Romney pointed out that Massachusetts students led the nation in standardized test scores for math and reading while he was governor. He is correct, but many educational experts credit the scores to a comprehensive education overhaul that the state began a decade before the Republican presidential candidate became governor. The president mentioned that the reforms pre-dated Romney's term.
Obama also said that Romney reduced education funding when the Republican was governor. Romney did indeed enact cuts to schools while dealing with a fiscal emergency he inherited during his first year in office. He then approved a budget that included $249 million in additional cuts with the first budget he signed. But those reductions were first approved by a veto-proof Democrat-led legislature that essentially called its own shots. — Josh Hicks
“The president began what I have called an apology tour, of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America.”
“Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign. And every fact checker and every reporter who's looked at it, governor, has said this is not true.”
“The reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations.”
Thanks for the call-out to fact checkers, Mr. President! Back in early 2011, this column awarded Romney Four Pinocchios for the “apology tour” claim, saying it was not borne out by the facts. Here’s a link to our lengthy look at this claim.
Interestingly, perhaps also in a nod to fact checkers, Romney noted that he calls this an apology tour, rather than simply asserting it as a statement of fact. He also was more specific in his critique, noting a 2009 speech first highlighted by former Bush aide Karl Rove in which the president said in Strasbourg, France (not, as Romney asserted, in the Middle East):
“In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.”
But Obama was making the case that both sides had misunderstood each other, and so he also said: “But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what's bad.”
As we put it in our original column: “The two sentences are a matched pair; there is no apology.”
(The “dictate” comment also was not delivered in the Middle East. That came in a 2009 speech to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago: “While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged and times we sought to dictate our terms.”)
As for Romney’s criticism of the fact Obama did not visit Israel, we have noted before that few presidents have visited Israel in their first term. George W. Bush, a strong supporter of Israel, did not visit until the end of his second term — and Ronald Reagan never visited at all.
(As is our practice, we generally do not award Pinocchio ratings in these instant round-ups.)
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