Romney Swaps Apology Charge With Obama Jab: Reality Check

President Barack Obama and Republican Nominee Mitt Romney
President Barack Obama, right, debates with Republican nominee Mitt Romney at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Photgorapher: Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney made competing assertions during their foreign policy debate yesterday in Boca Raton, Florida. How did they square with the facts?

Afghan Surge

The Claim: Both candidates declared success in turning security in Afghanistan over to that nation’s forces. Romney said the “surge has been successful, and the training program is proceeding apace.” Obama said, “There’s no reason why Americans should die when Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country.”

The Background: The U.S. plans to withdraw most of its remaining 68,000 combat soldiers in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 as it hands over operational control in the 11-year war against the Taliban to Afghan forces. At the end of 2009, Obama ordered an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan. That surge ended last month.

The Facts: Both candidates were misleading in failing to acknowledge troubles still plaguing Afghanistan, including corruption and insurgent safe havens in neighboring Pakistan.

Assertions that the Taliban have been fatally weakened and the transition to Afghan forces is on course have been disputed by analysts, including Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Ryan Crocker, who left his post as the top U.S. envoy to Afghanistan in July.

Given the weakness of Afghan forces, President Hamid Karzai is negotiating with the U.S. to establish an “enduring partnership” that may entail a long-term presence of U.S. forces in the country. Obama hasn’t said how many American forces would stay behind to continue giving assistance.

There also has been a rising number of “insider attacks” on U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops by Afghan security forces -- or men disguised as security forces. The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force reported 51 deaths of U.S. personnel in such attacks this year.

Speaking on Oct. 16 at a meeting of the International Stability Operations Association in Washington, Marc Grossman, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said U.S. forces will be needed well past 2014. Still, he called reports that the U.S. Defense Department is seeking to keep 25,000 troops there speculative.

Russia’s Threat

The Claim: Obama said Romney called Russia “the biggest geopolitical threat facing America.”

The Counter-Claim: Romney said he called Russia “a” geopolitical foe.

The Background: Obama has needled Romney for having a Cold War outlook on Russia that’s out of step with the current threats America faces.

The Facts: Both are right. In a March 26 interview on CNN’s Situation Room, Romney said, “Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe. They -- they fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.”

Later in the interview, though, he said, “of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran.”

Romney backpedaled in a June 19 interview, calling Russia “a” geopolitical opponent, and in that regard, “I think we’ve clearly seen that they continue to pursue a course which is antithetical to the interests of our nation.”

‘Apology Tour’

The Claim: Romney said that Obama began his presidency with “what I’ve called an apology tour,” going to “various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America.”

The Counter-Claim: Obama called Romney’s claim “the biggest whopper told in the course of this campaign.”

The Background: Obama’s first trip overseas as president included a major speech in Cairo and one in Strasbourg, France. Romney has been using the “apology tour” characterization during the campaign to suggest that Obama hasn’t given primacy to U.S. interests.

The Facts: Obama didn’t apologize on that trip. In his Cairo address, he did call the Iraq invasion a “war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world.” In Strasbourg, Obama said the U.S. “has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive” toward Europe’s role in the world -- and he chided Europe for “an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious.”

Later in the year, in his first address to the United Nations, Obama said, “my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests.” The president subsequently has expressed “deep regret” to President Karzai over the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, on a U.S. airbase in Afghanistan that prompted widespread rioting. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “sorry” for a U.S. military strike that mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani troops and prompted a transit route to Afghanistan to be shut down.

Iraq Pullout

The Claim: Obama said Romney has “said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day.”

The Counter-Claim: Romney said Obama had agreed with him “that there should there have been a status of forces agreement” with Iraq that would have let U.S. troops extend their deployment past the end of last year.

The Background: Obama, a longtime opponent of the Iraq war, has pointed to the U.S. troop pullout from that nation as a major achievement of his first term and a campaign promise kept. Some Republicans, including Romney, have faulted Obama for failing to extend a limited U.S. presence there through a new Status of Forces agreement with Iraq.

The Facts: Obama was misleading in criticizing Romney for wanting to extend a U.S. troop presence because his administration did, too.

The last U.S. Status of Forces agreement with Iraq for keeping U.S. troops in the country was negotiated in 2008 under President George W. Bush and expired at the end of last year.

Authors Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, in their new book “The Endgame,” said Obama in August 2011 settled on a proposal to the Iraqis that would have kept a force of about 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, and an additional 1,500 would rotate through the country.

The proposal was submitted to the Iraqi parliament with a provision that U.S. troops be given legal immunity from prosecution from Iraqi laws, and it failed to win approval. The administration didn’t consider the inability to get a new agreement a setback “because the White House never considered it a requirement,” Gordon and Trainor wrote.

Iranian Oil

The Claim: Romney said he would tighten sanctions on Iran and gave a specific example: “I would say that ships that carry Iranian oil can’t come into our ports. I would imagine the EU would agree with us as well.”

The Background: The U.S. and European Union have worked in lockstep in the past year to hit Iran with dozens of new penalties involving oil, financial transactions and other measures that have strangled Iran’s economy. The aim is to convince Iran to abandon the parts of its nuclear program that might produce a weapon.

The Facts: Romney’s proposal would have little, if any, effect. The U.S. already has a longstanding ban on imports of Iranian oil, and the EU imposed an Iran oil embargo on July 1. Romney would blacklist ships that have carried Iranian oil. In practice, there are almost no non-Iranian tankers now transporting Iranian oil because of insurance and shipping sanctions. No ships that have gone to Iran have then come to the U.S. since July, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

China-Trade Deficit

The Claim: Romney said the U.S. trade deficit with China is “growing larger every year.”

The Counter-Claim: Obama said “U.S. exports have doubled, since I came into office, to China.”

The Background: China is the world’s largest exporter and is the U.S.’s second-biggest trade partner after Canada. The U.S. has recorded annual trade deficits with China since at least 1985. The country’s trade and currency policies have become an issue in the campaign, with both Obama and Romney focusing on the imbalance and its effect on U.S. jobs.

The Facts: Romney’s claim is partly true, the U.S. trade deficit with China increased in 2010 and 2011 after falling in 2009. Obama’s claim that exports to China have doubled in his administration isn’t true, although they have increased.

The U.S. trade deficit in goods with China was $295.4 billion in 2011, rising from $273.1 billion the year earlier, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. The $226.9 billion deficit posted in 2009 was less than in 2008 and coincided with the global recession that year.

U.S. exports to China have surged since Obama took office, reaching a record $103.9 billion last year, according to the Census Bureau. In 2008, the year before Obama took office, exports to China were $69.7 billion. That’s a gain of 49 percent. Looking at the figures from 2012, the U.S. exported $70 billion in goods to China in the first eight months of the year, a 70 percent rise from the same period in 2009 and a 46 percent increase from the first eight months of 2008, when U.S. exports to China were $48.1 billion. Any way you parse it, Obama’s claim that U.S. exports to China have doubled under his watch isn’t true.

China Trade Complaints

The Claim: Obama said his administration has “brought more cases against China for violating trade rules than the other -- the previous administration had done in two terms.”

The Background: Romney and Obama have competed to sound tougher on China. Obama is referring to trade complaints filed against China at the World Trade Organization, the Geneva-based trade arbiter. China joined the WTO in 2001. The organization’s 157 members can request that a WTO panel resolve disputes among them, and decisions can be appealed.

The Facts: Obama is correct. The Obama administration has filed eight WTO complaints to oppose China’s trade practices, including three in 2012. President George W. Bush’s administration in its two terms filed seven WTO complaints against China, with its first in 2004.

Obama in February created a trade-enforcement unit to investigate unfair practices by nations including China. This year the U.S. Trade Representative’s office has requested that the WTO resolve disputes involving China’s restrictions on rare-earth exports, duties on U.S.-made autos, and subsidies for Chinese vehicle and auto-parts manufacturers.

Defense Cuts

The Claim: Romney said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Obama’s “trillion dollars of cuts to our military devastating.” Romney said, “It’s not my term, it’s the president’s own secretary of defense, called them devastating.”

Background: Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, have said Obama is weakening the U.S. military through defense budget cuts, and they have promised to restore the funds and add more to military spending.

The Facts: Romney is incorrect. Almost half of the cuts were approved by Panetta and the Defense Department to meet budget legislation backed by Obama and Congress. The measure, which mandated $487 billion in Pentagon reductions over 10 years, was supported by members of both parties, including Ryan.

An additional $500 billion in automatic cuts will take effect in January unless Obama and Congress agree to an alternative to the so-called sequestration. Obama administration officials, led by Panetta, and lawmakers of both parties have urged action to avert those cuts. “These additional half-trillion in cuts would be devastating for our defense,” Panetta said in remarks to the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce in Virginia on Oct. 19.

Defense Comparisons

The Claim: “We spend more on our military than the next 10 countries combined; China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, you name it,” Obama said.

The Background: U.S. defense spending was cut by an estimated $42 billion between fiscal years 2011 and 2012, and Obama proposed another $32 billion reduction for the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2013. Obama and Romney’s running mate, Ryan, backed legislation requiring $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over a decade, starting in January -- half of which would affect the Defense Department -- as a way to require Congress to act to reduce the budget deficit. Romney has called for increased defense spending.

The Facts: Obama understated U.S. defense spending in relation to other countries. The U.S. spent more on defense in 2011 -- $711 billion -- than the next 13 countries combined. That group of countries includes China, Russia, the U.K., France, Japan and Germany, and together those 13 nations spent $695 billion, according to an analysis of statistics from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which studies budget issues. The foundation was started by Peter Peterson, co-founder of the Blackstone Group, and secretary of commerce under President Richard Nixon.

Defense Increases

The Claim: Obama said, “Our military spending has gone up every single year that I’ve been in office.”

The Background: Obama has been trying to refute Republican suggestions that he supports deep budget cuts that would create a dangerously weak U.S. military.

The Facts: Obama is only partially correct. Defense spending approved by Congress, including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, peaked in fiscal 2010 at $690.9 billion, the first Obama budget. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in submitting that plan, said “one thing we have known for many months is that the spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing.” While the base budget that funds normal defense operations increased, total defense spending declined in fiscal 2011 and 2012 because of diminishing spending for the war in Iraq, according to the Pentagon’s comptroller.

The initial Obama base budget approved by Congress for fiscal 2010 was $527.9 billion, an increase from $513.2 billion the previous year. The base budget as enacted continued to increase to $528.2 billion fiscal 2011 and $530.6 billion in fiscal 2012.

Looking ahead, the administration’s $525.4 billion budget request for fiscal 2013 would reduce the base budget, in current dollars, for the first time since 1996, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The reduction was mandated by the Budget Control Act that was backed by both parties in Congress and Obama to reduce the federal deficit.

Mission Creep

The Claim: Obama said Romney supported his decision to organize a no-fly zone to protect civilians during the revolt against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, but then criticized “mission creep” and “mission muddle” when Obama and European leaders declared Qaddafi had to go.

The Background: The U.S. and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization provided military support, such as air strikes, for the Libyan rebels as they fought Qaddafi. Obama said Qaddafi’s fall vindicated his strategy of bringing together allies in a way that avoided putting U.S. troops on the ground.

The Facts: Romney did say those words. A few weeks after NATO’s operation started at the end of March 2011, in an April 21, 2011, posting on National Review magazine’s website, Romney said he supported the “specific, limited” no-fly-zone mission that Obama described in a March 28 televised speech. Romney expressed concern about the president’s declaration, in an April 15 op-ed with leaders from the U.K. and France, that Qaddafi “must go and go for good.”

“It is apparent that our military is engaged in much more than enforcing a no-fly zone,” Romney wrote. “What we are watching in real time is another example of mission creep and mission muddle.”

Tehran Protests

The Claim: Romney said Obama was silent following the June 2009 protests in Tehran. “When the students took to the streets in Tehran and the people there protested, the Green Revolution occurred,” Romney said. “For the president to be silent I thought was an enormous mistake.”

The Counter-Claim: Obama said, “I was very clear about the murderous activities that had taken place and that was contrary to international law and everything civilized people stand for.”

The Background: Hundreds of thousands of Iranians staged anti-government demonstrations after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed an election victory over opposition candidates on June 13, 2009. Islamic leaders responded by authorizing the use of force and arresting thousands.

The Facts: Romney only told part of the story. Obama did speak about the protests, although not until June 15, two days after they started. “It is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be,” Obama said in response to a question at a White House news conference with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. And while he said “we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran, which sometimes the United States can be a handy political football,” he added that he was “deeply troubled by the violence.” Peaceful dissent, he said, is a value that needs to be respected.

On June 17, Secretary of State Clinton said “the people of Iran deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted.” On June 23, Obama condemned the crackdown, saying the international community was “appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days.”

Aging Air Force

The Claim: Romney said the U.S. Air Force “is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947.”

The Background: Romney has said Obama is weakening the military by cutting defense spending. Romney said in a foreign policy speech in Virginia on Oct. 8 that he would “roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense that would devastate our military.”

During the debate, he also repeated his previous claim that the U.S. Navy “is smaller now than at any time since 1917.” Romney’s defense adviser John Lehman has said the Republican candidate backs a 350-ship naval fleet compared with 285 today. At the end of 1916, the Navy had 245 ships, according to the Navy’s History & Heritage Command.

The Facts: Both comparisons are misleading.

The U.S. Air Force was created in 1947, and at the end of the year it had 25,088 airplanes, according to “The First 60 Years, the Air Force 1947 to 2007,” published by the Air Force Association. At the end of fiscal year 2011, the Air Force had 5,484 airplanes.

Modern ships and planes, though, pack much more punch than their World War I and World War II predecessors did, and a number of weapons in today’s arsenals, intercontinental ballistic missiles, for example, didn’t exist in 1917 or 1947.

“Comparing the number of Air Force aircraft today to the inventory in 1947 lacks important context,” according to Bloomberg Government analyst Rob Levinson. “The inventory in 1947 consisted primarily of World War II aircraft that were mostly propeller-driven with limited range and speed compared to today’s modern jet aircraft, which can fly at supersonic speeds, augmented by aerial refueling that gives them a global reach.”

In 1947, Lockheed’s F-80C Shooting Star was the top-of-the-line fighter of the time, with a top speed of about 600 miles per hour. Today’s F-22, also made by Lockheed Martin Corp., can fly more than twice as fast. The Air Force also operates about 450 nuclear-capable Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, many with multiple warheads.

Auto Industry Rescue

The Claim: Obama said Romney had been “very clear” that he wouldn’t have provided “government assistance” to General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC. “even if they went through bankruptcy.”

The Counter-Claim: Romney said his position was to “provide guarantees” that would allow the automakers to enter and exit bankruptcy.

The Background: During the 2008 financial crisis, lending froze for businesses and consumers, including automakers. GM lost $9.6 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008. Chrysler was closely held and didn’t report financial results. Ford Motor Co. lost almost $6 billion, although it didn’t face bankruptcy.

The Facts: Romney is correct that in a November 2008 New York Times opinion article he said, “the federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk.” Yet economists and auto industry executives say there wouldn’t have been private financing available to guarantee.

“Financing would be all but impossible to get,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc., said at a December 2008 congressional hearing. If the automakers filed for bankruptcy to restructure, it would probably turn into Chapter 7 liquidations, Zandi said.

Mike Jackson, chief executive officer of AutoNation Inc., the largest U.S. auto-dealer group, has said the idea that private financing was available was a “fantasy.”

In the same New York Times article that Romney cited in the debate, he wrote that “Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.” He also said a “bailout check” for the automakers would “seal their fate.”

Health-Care Costs

The Claim: Romney said he would balance the budget in part by eliminating Obama’s health-care law. “There are a number of things that sound good, but frankly, we just can’t afford them. And that one doesn’t sound good and it’s not affordable,” he said.

The Background: Romney said he would repeal Obama’s signature Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. The law requires most Americans to carry health insurance and provides subsidies and an expansion of Medicaid, the health program for the poor, to help low-income families pay for coverage. About 30 million people who would otherwise be uninsured would gain coverage under the law.

The Facts: Romney is wrong. Repealing the entire law won’t save money or help balance the budget, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which calculates the financial costs of legislation for lawmakers. In a July letter to House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, the CBO said legislation the House passed to repeal the law would add $109 billion to the deficit through 2022. That’s because the law’s cost-saving features, including reductions in the growth of Medicare spending and new taxes, outweigh the expense of expanding insurance coverage. If Romney repealed only the coverage provisions of the law plus cost-savings related to them -- such as a tax on people who don’t carry insurance -- the government would save $1.2 trillion through 2022, according to the CBO. However, Romney says he would repeal the entire law, including all of its cost-saving provisions, which would add to the deficit.

Iran Sanctions

The Claim: Romney said Obama was too slow to impose economic sanctions against Iran. “I would have put them in place earlier.”

Counter-Claim: Obama said the U.S. “organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy.” He said the work was “meticulous” and began as soon as he took office in 2009.

The Background: To pressure Iran to abandon the disputed parts of its nuclear program, the United Nations has imposed four set of sanctions from 2006 to 2010. Those were followed in the past year by dozens of U.S. and European Union penalties involving oil, financial transactions and other measures.

The Facts: It’s impossible to say if sanctions could have been done faster. Obama is correct that international cooperation was required and the result has taken a toll. Oil exports from the Islamic republic slumped to 860,000 barrels a day in September, its lowest level in more than 20 years, according to an Oct. 16 report by the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Iran exported 1.1 million barrels a day in August and 2 million barrels a day in early 2012, according to the IEA. Iran has lost its ranking as the second-biggest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its currency, the rial, has lost more than half its value against the dollar in street trading in the past two months.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad said on July 3 that the sanctions against the Islamic Republic were “the harshest ever imposed on a country.” Iranian officials also have said they won’t bow to the pressure from sanctions.

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