A Republican conference call on Thursday, titled “President Obama’s Failed Foreign Policy,” got me to thinking: How can voters hear an honest debate on national security and foreign policy issues in the presidential campaign when candidates or their supporters provide false or misleading information?

Actually, they can’t. In fact, foreign policy and defense have been among the most distorted issues in nearly every presidential election I can recall.

In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower and the GOP used Democratic “coddling” of communists and the veiled threat of nuclear weapons to end the Korean War as tools to defeat Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, John F. Kennedy used the “missile gap” with the Soviet Union — America actually had more ICBMs than Russia — to help defeat Richard M. Nixon.

Republicans then made the buildup of nuclear weapons against the Soviet threat a hallmark of Ronald Reagan’s campaigns. Back in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter proposed building 200 MX ICBMs and putting them on railroad cars to deter a Soviet first strike, the Republicans said that was not enough. Once in power, however, the Reagan administration built 100 MXs in fixed silos and said not to worry, that there were two other legs to the nuclear triad: strategic submarines and bombers.

More recently, George W. Bush capitalized on Americans’ fears after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to help win reelection in 2004. That victory came in spite of the White House’s use of
cherry-picked intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.

As Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann said Sunday in a Washington Post essay on political gridlock, it’s time for the press to stop just presenting “evenhanded, unfiltered opposing views” and ask: “Which politician is telling the truth?”

Thursday’s GOP conference call seemed a good place to start.

It was designed as a counterstrike against Vice President Biden’s foreign policy speech — before he even made it.

One Republican on the call was John F. Lehman, a secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, member of the 9/11 Commission and current co-chairman of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s defense panel.

Lehman offered questionable facts to support his claim that, under Obama, the United States is “abdicating leadership for keeping stability in the world.”

He said the administration “is proposing reductions down to 300 nuclear weapons.” That is a warped version of a news story that the White House — in studying arms-reduction talks with the Russians — has asked the Pentagon for the implication of three alternatives: keeping warheads at the currently agreed level with Moscow of 1,550 deployed, cutting to 1,000, or dropping to anywhere from 300 to 800 warheads. The administration is not proposing 300 warheads in any offer.

That did not stop Lehman.

He told reporters that foreign military leaders are looking at, “in effect, unilateral disarmament that is going on with the Obama administration now with the latest budget having proposed cuts of over $1 trillion to our defenses.”

The administration has proposed no cuts totaling that amount. Under the bipartisan-
approved Budget Control Act of 2011, there was agreement on a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years. That same act required an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over that period. It also specified that if no agreement was reached by Dec. 31, 2012, there would be an automatic sequestering of funds, including roughly $500 billion more from defense.

Obama did not propose that second round of $500 billion in defense cuts. In fact, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has opposed them, and he and Obama have called on Congress to produce a package of revenue and reductions to avoid sequestration.

Decrying the decline of the number of ships in the Navy, Lehman used as an example that “we did not have a single combatant” in the Mediterranean Sea “when the Libya crisis broke” in March 2011. In fact, hours after the first French bombs dropped, the first U.S. Tomahawk missiles hit Libya, launched from among three U.S. Navy nuclear attack submarines in the Mediterranean. Two Navy surface ships also were there.

Lehman also noted that the Chinese had two ships in the area. One was a frigate that had been monitoring pirate activity off the Somalia coast, a main Chinese shipping lane. It traveled through the Red Sea and Suez ­Canal into the Mediterranean to be available as part of a major air-and-sea rescue effort to evacuate 36,000 Chinese workers from Libya.

Another “failure” of U.S. leadership Lehman cited was the joint anti-piracy effort off Somalia. Conducted since 2008 under United Nations, NATO and European Union agreements, it is considered by most countries as an example of how world powers can collaborate on a collective problem. Instead, Lehman described the joint anti-piracy effort as having “opened up a very attractive opportunity for the Russians.” Even the Chinese have two ships there, he said.

The issues of leadership, Lehman said, represent “a serious crisis and perhaps the central issue in the campaign.”

The more “serious crisis” is how voters can make sense of either candidates’ foreign policy and national security positions when Lehman or others provide such distorted facts.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.