WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney traded barbs on foreign policy Monday night, dueling over everything from military spending to Middle East events to how best to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In the last of three high-stakes presidential debates, not everything they said at Lynn University in the Florida beach city of Boca Raton squared with reality. Here’s a fact check of some of what they said:
Obama said he was confident that (Bashar) “Assad’s days are numbered.” However, there’s no evidence to support that the Syrian leader’s fall is imminent, and the administration has repeated that line for several months now with no significant military progress by the rebels.
While it’s true that the rebels have managed to capture sizable parts of the country, they’ve struggled to hold those territories against the better-armed regime forces, and experts agree that there’s no way the rebels can win militarily without either a crucial infusion of heavy weapons or direct foreign military intervention. By contrast, 19 months into the uprising, Assad is still in power, his inner circle is largely intact, and his military is still strong enough to call up reinforcements. Without an assassination or some form of outside military help for the rebels, experts say, Assad could hang on for many more months or even years.
Romney blasted Obama for failing to take “a leading role” in organizing the Syrian political opposition and uniting the “disparate” rebel factions under a single opposition banner.
The United States, along with France and other Western allies, has tried for more than a year to pressure Syrian opposition forces to form a government-in-waiting and streamline the rebel forces. In addition, the U.S. government has allocated more than $130 million in nonlethal and humanitarian aid to Syrian dissidents to spur them to organize.
However, the Syrian dissidents themselves are deeply divided and openly admit that their own ideological and religious differences have prevented the formation of a potential transitional government, as the Libyans managed to create before the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
President Obama’s notion that U.S. interlocutors only worked with relatively moderate opposition forces during the Libyan uprising is misleading. The United States backed the National Transitional Council, a self-appointed group of exiles and dissidents that included conservative Islamists as well as secularists.
Meanwhile, the rebels who fought Gadhafi’s forces were a hodge-podge of military defectors, civilians and former jihadists – just like in Syria today. The United States, the lead partner in the NATO alliance, supported those rebels militarily. Many of the most seasoned fighters were veteran jihadists, including some of who’d fought U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. When the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked in September, the attackers used rocket-propelled grenades that may have come from the arsenal left behind in Gadhafi’s collapse.
Romney was misleading in asserting – as he has previously – that Iran is “four years closer” to having a nuclear weapon. The greatest hurdle to developing nuclear weapons is enriching uranium, and Iran crossed that line almost six years ago, when technicians began feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into high-speed centrifuges at the country’s main enrichment facility at Natanz. He was correct in noting that work has continued. Iran has installed thousands of centrifuges in Natanz, brought on line a second facility buried below a mountain near the holy city of Qom and built up stocks of 3.5 percent and near 20 percent low-enriched uranium that Iran says it wants for fuel for nuclear power reactors and a research reactor that produces medical isotopes. Those stocks can be further enriched to highly enriched uranium, or HEU, for a weapon using the same centrifuges. But if Iran were to move to produce HEU, it would almost certainly be immediately detected by U.N. inspectors and monitoring devices, putting Iran’s facilities at risk of U.S. airstrikes, most experts agree.
Romney largely supported the tough economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the Obama administration but said he would have imposed them earlier. The Bush administration considered tougher sanctions but concluded they could push Iran to play its oil card, doing something to spike the price of oil, hurting U.S. consumers in a down economy.
In what appeared to be a significant geographical gaffe, Romney called Syria Iran’s "route to the sea." Iran has 1,491 miles of coastline on the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, across which its oil travels to reach global markets. It has another 460 miles of northern coastline on the Caspian Sea. Syria has just 119 miles of coastline, most on the Mediterranean Sea, according to the CIA Factbook.
Obama criticized Romney for suggesting we should have troops in Iraq to this day. But Romney pointed out correctly that Obama was negotiating to keep a few thousand troops in Iraq. Talks on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq collapsed over Iraqi concerns about legal protection of U.S. forces. Obama later declared the war was over.
The president once again claimed that he fulfilled a promise to end the war in Iraq. In reality, all U.S. forces were required to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011, under a timetable negotiated by the Bush administration with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al Malaki and that as overwhelmingly approved by the Iraqi Parliament on Nov. 27, 2008. He did ensure that the timetable was met.
The president said that “military spending has gone up every single year that I’ve been in office. We spend more on our military than the next 10 countries combined.”
While true that the US spends more on defense than the next 10 nations combined, the president’s contention that US defense spending has increased in each year of his administration is a half truth. While true that through this year, the base budget for the Department of Defense has increased, overall defense spending – which includes overseas contingency operations funding – has decreased, for instance from $158.8 billion in 2011 to $115.1 billion in 2012.
Romney repeated that the U.S. naval fleet is at its lowest number since 1917. This is false. The actual low, according to a U.S. Navy website, came in 2007, when the U.S. Navy ship total fell to 278. In fact, there have been several years in the past decade when the U.S. Navy has had fewer than the current 285 ships. What Romney may be referring to is a trend that began in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. Since then, the number of U.S. Navy ships steadily dropped from 592. The Navy’s plan for ship building over the next 30 years is based on building toward a size of about 300 ships.
Romney asserted that the United States has not dictated to other nations, rather it had freed them. His is right on the liberating role the U.S. foreign policy has played in numerous conflicts, but it takes the most liberal of readings of history to suggest that U.S. foreign policy has not dictated to other nations. The simple act of economic sanctions, whether they fall on Cuba, Myanmar or Iran, is precisely designed to dictate the behavior of another nation.
Obama made several mentions of his administration’s support for Egyptian protesters who rose up against then-President Hosni Mubarak, an authoritarian and one of the United States’ most reliable Arab allies. Obama said letting “tanks run over those young people who were in Tahrir Square” wasn’t the kind of American leadership espoused by John F. Kennedy. His comments sidestep the fact that his administration wavered at the beginning of the Egyptian revolt, when the Egyptian security forces were using extreme force against protesters in Tahrir Square.
On Jan. 25, 2011, the day of the first major protest in Cairo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confidently described the Mubarak government as “stable” and moving towards reform. Fewer than three weeks later, Mubarak had resigned.
Romney repeated his claim that Obama’s foreign policy was “unraveling,” rattling off countries where instability and violence have followed Arab Spring revolts. The tumult, Romney said, brought “a rising tide of chaos.” Analysts who’ve closely followed the Middle East, however, say that there’s little any U.S. president could’ve done to have contained the spontaneous, region-wide uprisings and avoided the threats to U.S. interests in the region, namely the replacing of U.S.-friendly authoritarians with a new crop of Islamist politicians from the Muslim Brotherhood and other more conservative groups.
Gov. Romney repeated that he’d boost trade with Latin America and suggested the region represents a missed opportunity. The United States already has trade agreements with Chile, Peru, and Colombia, the most important Pacific Coast nations in South America. That mostly leaves Brazil, hostile Venezuela and shaky Argentina as significant trade partners. The United States and all the other nations in the hemisphere negotiated a Free Trade Area of the Americas for 10 years, but it died on the vine during the Bush administration, in large measure because Brazil, the region’s dominant economy, didn’t see the pact in its best interests.
Hannah Allam, Roy Gutman, Jonathan S. Landay and Matthew Schofield contributed