Advice to presidential hopefuls: Details matter

Walter Pincus
Reporter January 25, 2012

Of all people, presidential candidates should check their facts before making accusations or promises on the campaign trail, particularly when dealing with sensitive foreign policy or defense spending issues.

Charges made by former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and promises by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney during Monday’s Republican debate in Tampa provide good case studies.

Gingrich said that President Obama canceled a scheduled military exercise with Israel “so as not to be provocative” to Iran. He described that action as “the most dangerous possible thing . . . [that] Obama just did.”

Gingrich then went further, saying that “dictatorships,” referring to the Tehran regime, “respond to strength. They don’t respond to weakness, and I think there’s a very grave danger that the Iranians think that in fact, this president is so weak, they could close the Straits of Hormuz and not suffer substantial consequence.”

Fact: As others, including Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler, have already noted, according to Israeli press accounts, it was the Israeli government that initiated the postponement — not cancellation — of the planned April 12 joint exercise called Austere Challenge 12. It was to test American and Israeli defensive systems against rockets and missiles allegedly launched by Iran. The exercise is to be held later this year.

On Jan. 16, Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel Radio that “diplomatic and regional reasons, the tensions and instability” led to the delay. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the same thing. That same day, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported that an Israeli official said that the postponement primarily “had to do with budget cuts in Israel.”

But Gingrich’s error goes much further than accusing Obama of causing the delay. He ignored what had occurred in the Persian Gulf the day before the Tampa debate vis-a-vis Iran’s reading of Obama’s “weakness” in the face of any Iranian threat.

When the American carrier USS John C. Stennis left the gulf on a scheduled redeployment last month, the Iranian navy was in the midst of 10-day maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz.

On Jan. 3, Iran’s army chief, Maj. Gen. Ataollah Salehi, said, “I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf,” adding, “We are not in the habit of warning more than once.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta responded publicly Jan. 8 to Iran’s threat, saying, “We made very clear that the United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Strait of Hormuz. . . . That’s another red line for us and that we will respond to them.”

The Iranians changed their tune. The strait would be open to U.S. warships.

In the debate, Gingrich ignored moderator Brian Williams’ reference to the American carrier USS Abraham Lincoln passing through the strait, perhaps because it undermined his whole theory.

Romney, who has spoken often about the Navy situation, repeated during Monday’s debate his view that “under this president, under prior presidents, we keep on shrinking our Navy.”

He described it as “now smaller than any time since 1917,” ignoring the obviously better capabilities of current vessels. Romney added, as he has in previous campaign statements, that the Obama administration “is building roughly nine ships a year. We ought to raise that to 15 ships a year.”

Facts: Although the fiscal 2013 budget due shortly could change things, the current five-year plan is to build an average of 11 Navy ships a year for the next five years, according to a new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. Romney’s nine ships a year is out of date.

But, as the CRS report notes and Romney’s promise ignores, much depends on what kind of ships you plan to build each year. The current plan for 55 ships over the next five years can be accomplished because 27 will be, according to CRS, “relatively inexpensive” Littoral Combat Ships (frigates) at $500 million each and Joint High Speed Vessels (amphibious landing ships) at $200 million each.

A few years from now, the next generation of strategic ballistic missile submarines will begin, at $4 billion-plus, and“procuring an average of 10 or more ships per year will become a considerably more expensive proposition,” according to CRS.

Gingrich and Romney would do themselves, the voters and this country a favor by checking their facts before they make their foreign policy and defense pronouncements.

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