President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry made few major factual errors in last night's debate, though on occasion they stretched the truth or left out inconvenient facts -- or may have confused viewers as they spoke in policy shorthand.
Bush, for instance, hailed the coming presidential election in Afghanistan, saying that the fact that 10 million people had registered to vote was a "phenomenal statistic." But Human Rights Watch this week said that figure was inaccurate because of the multiple registrations of many voters. In a lengthy report, the respected organization also documented how human rights abuses are fueling a pervasive atmosphere of repression and fear in many parts of the country, with voters in those areas having little faith in the secrecy of the balloting and often facing threats and bribes from militia factions.
Kerry repeatedly stated that U.S. forces allowed Osama bin Laden to escape during the battle at Tora Bora in 2001 because the administration, he said, "outsourced" the task to Afghan militia leaders. This probably overstates the case -- it is unclear whether bin Laden was at Tora Bora -- but it is true that the Pentagon relied on Afghan proxy forces in an effort to minimize the potential loss of U.S. military lives. Kerry said bin Laden was in Afghanistan, but the intelligence community has always said he was somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
After the Tora Bora fight, as local Afghan militias began withdrawing, considering their part of the war over, top Pentagon officials appeared ready to send hundreds of conventional ground troops into the White Mountains to press the search for bin Laden and his associates. That plan was dropped in favor of offers of money, weapons and cold-weather clothing to sustain Afghan cooperation.
On North Korea, Bush charged that Kerry's proposal to have direct talks with that country would end the six-nation diplomacy that the administration has pursued over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. Kerry has said he would continue the six-party talks as well. Bush said direct talks with North Korea would drive away China, a key player in the negotiations.
But each of the other four countries in the talks has held direct talks with North Korea during the six-party process -- and China has repeatedly asked the Bush administration to talk directly with North Korea. Moreover, the Bush administration has talked directly with North Korean diplomats on the sidelines of the six-party talks, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met with his North Korean counterpart over the summer.
In a fierce debate over nuclear proliferation, Bush asserted: "Libya has disarmed. The A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice." He was referring to a nuclear smuggling ring based in Pakistan.
But many experts also credit the patient diplomacy started in the Clinton administration for persuading Libya to cooperate. Moreover, Khan, a national hero in Pakistan, was pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf, and not a single person involved in his network has been prosecuted anywhere. Yesterday, in fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency complained that it had been prevented from interviewing Khan.
Bush said he has increased spending on curbing nuclear proliferation by "about 35 percent" since he took office. But in his first budget, he proposed a 13 percent cut -- about $116 million -- and much of the increases since then have been added by Congress.
Kerry misspoke when he asserted that Bush is spending "hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons." In fact, the budget for research on that weapon is less that $35 million. The administration has set aside almost $500 million for future budgets in case the president and Congress agree to go ahead with the production of such a weapon.
The two men also disputed whether Saddam Hussein would have been stronger if the United States had not launched an invasion. This is a question that will be debated by historians, and the answer may never be clear.
Bush said "Saddam Hussein had no intention of disarming." Yet Iraq asserted in its filing with the United Nations in December 2002 that it had no such weapons, and none has been found.
The Bush administration invaded Iraq because it believed Hussein was concealing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Some post-invasion reports have argued that Hussein retained the capability to restart his weapons programs, but many experts consider that doubtful as long as he remained under U.N. sanctions and inspections.
However, when Kerry said Hussein would have been continually weakened, he was making a leap of faith that the U.N. Security Council would have been willing to continue sanctions that were increasingly unpopular with key nations.