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Flashback: Obama’s debate zinger on Romney’s ‘1980s’ foreign policy (video)

In 2012, President Obama assailed then-candidate Gov. Mitt Romney for saying Russia is the U.S.'s biggest geopolitical foe. Truth Teller meets Throwback Thursday to take a look at Obama's statement. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)
VIDEO: The foreign-policy clash between President Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. Truth Teller fact-checks video in the news to explain the truth about what’s being said.

“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

–President Obama, during the third presidential debate, Oct. 22, 2012

With Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region, some analysts have begun asking if the United States and Russia are once again entering a Cold War. To some extent, it’s a misplaced analogy because the two countries at the moment are not dueling around the globe, battling over a particular economic philosophy. But certainly Russia and the United States—after the Obama administration’s much-heralded “reset” five years ago—are entering a chilly period.

So now let’s take a trip down memory lane and look back at a celebrated exchange between President Obama and his GOP rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, during the third presidential debate. With the passage of time, it makes for interesting viewing. The “Truth Teller” video above depicts the exchanges.

The Facts

The exchange has its roots in a “hot mic” incident in March 2012, during which Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were caught exchanging words during a summit in South Korea.

“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space,” Obama told Medvedev, referring to incoming Russian president Vladi­mir Putin.

“Yeah, I understand,” Medvedev said.

“This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility,” Obama added.

“I understand,” Medvedev replied. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

The back-and-forth between Obama and Medvedev quickly became fodder for Republicans. Romney jumped on it, asking what Obama meant by “more flexibility.”

Romney went on CNN and said: “This is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight for every cause for the world’s worst actors. The idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed.”

When challenged if Russia was a bigger foe than Iran, China or North Korea, Romney made clear he was talking about Russian behavior at the U.N. Security Council.

“I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world’s worst actors, of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran, and nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough, but when these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when [Syrian President] Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go to the United Nations and who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors? It is always Russia, typically with China alongside, and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council, and is of course a massive security power — Russia is the geopolitical foe.”

(Actually, as The Fact Checker noted at the time, Romney’s point about Russia’s behavior at the United Nations was mathematically challenged. Russia has repeatedly supported resolutions that have sought to limit Tehran’s and Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, such as the 2010 Security Council resolution that paved the way for increasingly tough sanctions on Iran. Russia actually cast only a handful of vetoes in the past decade.)

Romney expanded on his theme in an article for Foreign Policy, titled “Bowing to the Kremlin,” decrying what he considered administration concessions to Russia:

“Moscow has rewarded these gifts with nothing but obstructionism at the United Nations on a whole raft of issues. It has continued to arm the regime of Syria’s vicious dictator and blocked multilateral efforts to stop the ongoing carnage there. Across the board, it has been a thorn in our side on questions vital to America’s national security. For three years, the sum total of President Obama’s policy toward Russia has been: ‘We give, Russia gets.’”

Seven months later, during their debate showdown, Obama was ready with a zinger.

First, however, he mischaracterized Romney’s original point. “Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaeda,” Obama said.

That was wrong, as there is a difference between “threat” and “foe.” During the debate, Romney called Obama on this error, emphasizing he was talking about Russia at the United Nations.

“Russia, I indicated, is a geopolitical foe. Not … Excuse me. It’s a geopolitical foe, and in the same paragraph I said, ‘and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face.’ Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again.”

For the purposes of the debate, such subtleties apparently did not matter. Obama offered a jab that spawned approving headlines: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years….When it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s.”

The Bottom Line

Obama’s comment on the “1980s” was clearly a planned zinger. In the wake of the Crimea standoff, odds are the anonymous author of that line is not eager to be identified. But it probably seemed like a clever idea at the time.


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.

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