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False Claims in Final Debate

Obama, Romney take turns twisting the facts in Florida on foreign policy.


In the third and final Obama-Romney debate, the candidates again contradicted each other, while each offered incorrect or twisted factual claims.

  • President Obama erred when he accused Mitt Romney of saying during the 2008 campaign that “we should ask Pakistan for permission” before going into that country to kill or capture terrorists. What Romney said was that he’d “keep our options quiet.”
  • Obama wrongly accused Romney of not telling the truth when Romney said “you and I agreed” some U.S. troops should be left in Iraq. In fact, the president tried and failed to negotiate an agreement to keep 3,000 to 4,000 support troops there; Romney said he would have left 10,000 to 30,000.
  • Obama said unemployment among military veterans is lower than for the general population. That’s true for veterans generally but not for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
  • Romney was wrong when he repeated a claim that our “Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917.” Actually, there are slightly more ships active now than at the low point under President George W. Bush.
  • Obama claimed the record would back him up when he accused Romney of opposing any federal “help” or “assistance” for troubled automakers. In fact, the record shows Romney supported federal loan guarantees.
  • Romney repeated his claim that the president undertook “an apology tour … criticizing America” after Obama became president. Obama called that “probably the biggest whopper that’s been told” during the entire campaign. And in fact, our own analysis, and that of other fact-checkers, found no “apology” in the president’s speeches.
  • Romney claimed credit for top scores by Massachusetts grade-schoolers while he was governor. But they tested at the top, or near it, before Romney took office.
  • Obama wrongly claimed Romney called Russia the “biggest geopolitical threat facing America.” Actually, Romney called Russia a “foe” and not a “threat.” He said “the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran.”
  • Romney said the federal debt to “other people” is $16 trillion, which isn’t correct. The debt owed to the public is $11 trillion, and the figure he gave includes money the government owes to itself.
  • Romney claimed terrorism wasn’t mentioned in any presidential debate in 2000. Actually, Al Gore made one brief mention.

One issue on which the two men no longer seem to disagree is pulling out all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Romney had previously criticized the president for setting a date, and later modified his position to say he agreed with the president’s timeline but would be guided by military commanders and events “on the ground.” This time, he dropped all qualifiers and said flatly, “[W]hen I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.”


The third and final presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney took place Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. The focus was to be foreign policy, although both candidates slipped in some references to domestic issues.

Pakistan Permission?

Obama claimed that during the 2008 campaign Romney said “we should ask Pakistan for permission” before going into that country to kill or capture terrorists. That’s not true. Romney said taking unilateral action in Pakistan should be an option, but criticized Obama for publicly talking about it, saying, “we keep our options quiet.”

Obama: When it comes to going after Osama bin Laden, you said, well, any president would make that call. But when you were a candidate in 2008 — as I was — and I said, if I got bin Laden in our sights, I would take that shot, you said we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man, and you said we should ask Pakistan for permission. And if we had asked Pakistan for permission, we would not have gotten him. And it was worth moving heaven and earth to get him.

Obama distorted two facts here. We’ll first address the one about Pakistan.

As a senator and candidate for president, Obama said he would attack “high-value” terrorists in Pakistan with or without the approval of its then-president, Pervez Musharraf.

Obama, Aug. 1, 2007: If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

In a radio interview two days later, Romney called Obama’s comment “ill-considered.” He went on to say: “I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours. … I don’t think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort.”

The Obama campaign cites this as evidence that Romney would seek permission to attack terrorists in Pakistan. But it’s not the whole story.

A couple of days later, Romney was asked at a Republican debate in Iowa what he would do if the CIA came to him and said it had Osama bin Laden in its sights but Musharraf said the U.S. could not enter Pakistan. Romney said going into Pakistan without permission would be an option, but criticized Obama for saying so.

Romney, Aug. 5, 2007: It’s wrong for a person running for the president of the United States to get on TV and say, “We’re going to go into your country unilaterally.” Of course, America always maintains our option to do whatever we think is in the best interests of America. But we don’t go out and say, “Ladies and gentlemen of Germany, if ever there was a problem in your country, we didn’t think you were doing the right thing, we reserve the right to come in and get them out.”

We don’t say those things. We keep our options quiet. We do not go out and say to a nation which is working with us, where we have collaborated and they are our friend and we’re trying to support Musharraf and strengthen him and his nation, that instead that we intend to go in there and potentially bring out a unilateral attack.

Obama also fails to tell the whole story when he remarked that Romney once said “we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man,” referring to bin Laden. As we wrote after the vice presidential debate, Romney said in 2007 that the U.S. shouldn’t focus on one man, but rather needed a “broader strategy to defeat the Islamic jihad movement.”

U.S. Troops in Iraq

The president went too far when he accused Romney of not telling the truth about Obama’s position on leaving a residual force of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Romney: [W]ith regards to Iraq, you and I agreed, I believe, that there should have been a status of forces agreement. Did you…

Obama: That’s not true. … [W]hat I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.

Obama did indeed seek to leave several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq, and disagreed with Romney only over the size of the residual force. The administration tried to negotiate a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government to leave 3,000 to 4,000 troops there at the time that negotiations broke down over the Iraqis’ refusal to grant legal immunity to remaining U.S. troops.

As the last troops were leaving in December 2011, Romney said on Fox News, “[W]e should have left 10-, 20-, 30-thousand personnel there to help transition to the Iraqis’ own military capabilities.”

Smallest Navy Since 1917?

Romney repeated the claim that our “Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917,” which isn’t technically true. There were 342 total active ships as of April 6, 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I. There were 282 active duty ships as of April 2012, according to a Congressional Research Service report in August. That’s down from the Naval History and Heritage Command’s count of 285 as of September 2011. However, 282 ships is the same number in service during George W. Bush’s last year in office, and a slight increase over the number in 2007, when the size of the fleet was actually at its lowest.

More important, ships today can do more than they used to, so having fewer doesn’t necessarily translate to a weaker Navy. In April, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said that comparing today’s ships to those of years past is “like comparing the telegraph to the smartphone.” Navy officials presented a plan to Congress back in March projecting that the size of the Naval fleet could increase to 300 ships by 2019. That’s the amount that Mabus said the Navy needs to meet its defense needs.

Veterans’ Unemployment

Obama claimed that unemployment among veterans is lower now than it is among the general population, which is correct. But that’s only true for all veterans. The rate among veterans of America’s most recent wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — is currently higher than that of the general population.

The president also may have misled some listeners when he said the veterans’ rate “was higher when I took office.” Higher than what? The rate for veterans was higher then than it is now, but it was lower than the rate for the general population both then and now.

Obama: The first lady has done great work with an organization called Joining Forces putting our veterans back to work. And as a consequence, veterans’ unemployment is actually now lower than general population, it was higher when I came into office.

Figures for veterans aren’t available on a seasonally adjusted basis, so to compare like to like we’ve looked at unadjusted figures for both. The unemployment rate of the general population was 8.5 percent (not seasonally adjusted) in January 2009, the month of Obama’s inauguration. The unemployment rate among veterans was lower — at 7.4 percent that month — not higher as Obama said.

Both rates increased — and peaked — during Obama’s term. The unadjusted rate topped out among the general population at 10.6 percent in January 2010 and for veterans at 9.9 percent in January 2011.

As of September, the unadjusted rates shrunk to 7.6 percent for the general population and 6.7 percent for veterans. But the rate among veterans of America’s most recent wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — remains higher than that of the general population, at 9.7 percent. It had peaked at 15.2 percent in January 2011.

Leaving Afghanistan

One issue on which Romney no longer seems to disagree with Obama is pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Romney: [W]e’re going to be finished by 2014. And when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.

Later Romney added that the Afghans “will be ready by the end of 2014” to take over their own security.

That’s a change. In the past, Romney had said that announcing a specific date for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops was among Obama’s “biggest mistakes.” He later told ABC News that he also would adhere to “the same time frame the president is speaking of” for turning over responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, but qualified that by saying withdrawal depended on what military commanders tell him and on circumstances “on the ground.”

This time there were no such qualifiers. Romney said flatly: “[W]e’re going to be able to make that transition by the end of — of 2014. So our troops’ll come home at that point.” And for the record, both Obama and Romney have left the door open for leaving a residual force of support troops behind, if the Afghans agree.

Bankruptcy Back-and-Forth

Obama got it wrong when he insisted over and over that Romney never advocated “help” or “government assistance” for automakers if they went through bankruptcy. In fact, Romney called for a “managed bankruptcy” that would include federal “guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing,” which qualifies as indirect government assistance by any definition. What Romney opposed was the direct federal aid Obama implemented.

Here’s an edited version of the candidates’ long and contentious disagreement:

Romney: I said they need — these companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy, and in that process they can get government help and government guarantees, but they need to go through bankruptcy to get rid of excess cost and the debt burden that they’d — they’d built up. …

Obama: Governor Romney, that’s not what you said. …

Romney: You can take a look at the op-ed.

Obama: You did not say that you would provide, Governor, help. …

Romney: You know, I’m — I’m still speaking. I said that we would provide guarantees and — and that was what was able to allow these companies to go through bankruptcy, to come out of bankruptcy. Under no circumstances would I do anything other than to help this industry get on its feet. And the idea that has been suggested that I would liquidate the industry — of course not. Of course not. …

Obama: The — look, I think anybody out there can check the record. Governor Romney, you keep on trying to, you know, airbrush history here. You were very clear that you would not provide government assistance to the U.S. auto companies even if they went through bankruptcy. You said that they could get it in the private marketplace. That wasn’t true. They would have gone through a —

Romney: You’re wrong. You’re wrong, Mr. President.

Obama: I — no, I am not wrong.

Romney: You’re wrong.

Obama: I am not wrong. And —

Romney: People can look it up. You’re right.

Obama: People will look it up.

Romney: Good.

In fact, people can easily look it up. Romney’s 2008 op-ed, published in the New York Times with the well-known headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” said he was against the government bailout. But Romney wrote: “A managed bankruptcy may be the only path to the fundamental restructuring the industry needs. It would permit the companies to shed excess labor, pension and real estate costs. The federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk.”

Apology Tour, Again

What night of presidential foreign policy debate would be complete without the rehashed claim from Romney that Obama embarked on an “apology tour” of the world soon after being elected president.

Romney: And then the president began what I’ve called an apology tour of going to — to various nations in the Middle East and — and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness. … And I think that when the president said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel that they noticed that as well.

Obama retorted that “[n]othing Gov. Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign, and every fact-checker and every reporter that’s looked at it … has said this is not true.”

Obama is certainly right about the assessment of fact-checkers, including FactCheck.org. We pored over the speeches that Romney cited in his book “No Apology” to back up his claim that Obama went on an “apology tour,” and we concluded that “we didn’t see that any of them rise to the level of an actual apology.” Our fact-checking colleagues at PolitiFact and the Washington Post Fact Checker reached the same conclusion: Obama never apologized.

During the debate, Romney defended his “apology” claim:

Romney: Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And, by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.

Obama’s “dismissive” and “derisive” comments were not actually made in the Middle East, as Romney said, but rather during a speech Obama gave in Strasbourg, France, in April 2009.

Here’s the fuller context of those remarks (again, made to a European audience, not Middle Eastern):

Obama, April 3, 2009: I know that there have been honest disagreements over policy, but we also know that there’s something more that has crept into our relationship. In America, there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.

But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what’s bad.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth. They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us both more isolated.

Here’s what Obama said in a speech in Cairo, Egypt, on June 4, 2009:

Obama, June 4, 2009: The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. All this has bred more fear and more mistrust.

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.

As the fuller context shows, Obama spoke about tensions between the U.S. and the Muslim world, and placed blame on both sides. And then he called for a “new beginning.” That’s not an apology.

Romney’s claim that Obama “said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel” is also not as clear-cut as Romney suggests.

The source of this quote is a Washington Post story in July that reconstructed a private meeting between Obama and a dozen Jewish leaders on July 13, 2009.

According to people at the meeting, the Post reported, Obama talked about the relationship between Israel and the U.S. under the George W. Bush administration and said, “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”

The story goes on to say that Obama told the Jewish leaders that he “wanted to restore the United States’ reputation as a credible mediator. To do so, he believed that he needed to regain Arab trust — and talk tough to Israel, publicly and privately.”

The Post story later quotes Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes explaining Obama’s motivation: “The case he was trying to make was that the United States will be a better partner to Israel if it has more credibility with the Arab states, that we will be a better, more useful friend to Israel if we have more friends in the Arab world.”

The Obama administration has neither confirmed nor denied the veracity of the “daylight” quote. Nonetheless, it is a second-hand quote from an anonymous source, and the context of its meaning — explained in the same Post story — was distorted by Romney during the debate.

We’re No. 1

Romney boasted that Massachusetts’ fourth and eighth graders tested first in the nation in reading and math after he became governor. But Massachusetts students had tested at the top or near it before Romney took office.

Obama countered that it was a policy put in place a decade earlier that caused the high scores. The state did pass a landmark 1993 law that emphasized testing and new curriculum, and increased school funding.

Romney: While I was governor, I was proud that our fourth graders came out number one of all 50 states in English and then also in math, and our eighth graders number one in English and also in math — first time one state had been number one in all four measures. How did we do that? Well, Republicans and Democrats came together on a bipartisan basis to put in place education that focused on having great teachers in the classroom. And that was —

Obama: Ten years earlier —

Romney: That was — that was what allowed us to become the number one state in the nation. And this is — and we were —

Obama: But that was 10 years before you took office.

Romney was governor of Massachusetts from January 2003 to January 2007. The 2003 test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” put Massachusetts students in first place for reading and math in fourth grade and reading in eighth grade. It was second for eighth grade math. And it tied with several other states in all categories. In 2005, eighth grade math scores moved up to first — and, as Romney said, the state was ranked first in all categories (tied with a few other states in the math categories).

The state’s 2002 reading scores and 2000 math scores were also at or near the top of the nation — and on par with several other states.

Romney said it was a “bipartisan” effort “that focused on having great teachers” that boosted test scores. But scores were already high in Massachusetts compared with other states. (And they’ve remained there since Romney left office.) Obama said it was an effort “10 years before you took office,” and there’s evidence for that. The Boston Globe said a 1993 education law “is largely credited” for the high scores.

The Christian Science Monitor also recently looked at Massachusetts’ success in education and pointed to the 1993 law that emphasized testing.

Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 5, 2012: Leaders from state government, education, and business came together to form the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, creating high standards and curriculum frameworks in math, reading, social studies, and science, as well as related tests for fourth-, eighth-, and 10th-graders – the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). …

The emphasis on high-stakes testing led some teachers and parents to protest, worried that it would nudge borderline students into dropping out – a debate that later resonated nationally because of the testing regimen established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. …

After the new system took hold, significant learning gains among Massachusetts students were reflected in both state and national tests.

Obama also claimed that Romney “cut education spending when you came into office.” That’s true, though it’s worth pointing out that the state faced a budget gap and the Democratic Legislature proposed cuts, too. Our colleagues at Politifact documented a similar Obama claim on this point.

No. 1 Threat?

In one of his first zingers of the night, Obama mocked Romney’s foreign policy chops, saying that Romney once called Russia — “not al Qaeda” — the “biggest geopolitical threat facing America.” We score this one for Romney.

Obama: Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al Qaeda’s 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, you said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.

Romney responded by saying that his words had been twisted.

Romney: First of all, Russia, I indicated, is a geopolitical foe, not —

Obama: Number one —

Romney: Excuse me. It’s a geopolitical foe. And I said 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. I have clear eyes on this.

And so, to the transcript of an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer earlier this year:

Romney, March 26, 2012: [T]his is to Russia, this is, without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe. …

Blitzer: But you think Russia is a bigger foe right now than, let’s say, Iran or China or North Korea? Is that – is that what you’re suggesting, Governor?

Romney: Well, 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. A nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough.

So, this debate kerfuffle comes down to a distinction between biggest “foe” and biggest “threat.” Obama said Romney called Russia “the biggest geopolitical threat facing America … not al Qaeda.” Romney called Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.” And Romney is correct that he quickly noted in the same interview that “the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran.”

Debt to ‘Other People’

Romney overstated the size of the federal debt held by the public. In talking about China, Romney said “we owe them a trillion dollars and owe other people $16 trillion in total, including them.” It’s true that we owe China $1.2 trillion, but the U.S. owes “other people” a total of $11.3 trillion, including China.

Romney mixed up his numbers. The $16 trillion refers to total federal debt — including how much the government owes itself for such things as the Social Security trust funds.

Terrorism in 2000 Debates

Romney also was a bit off when he claimed, “In the 2000 debates, there was no mention of terrorism.” Actually, Al Gore made one glancing mention during the third presidential debate with George W. Bush on Oct. 17, 2000.

A member of the audience asked the candidates, “What would make you the best candidate in office during the Middle East crisis?” And Gore responded by saying that as a member of the House Intelligence Committee he’d become familiar with “how we can diffuse these tensions and deal with non-proliferation and deal with the problems of terrorism and these new weapons of mass destruction.”

— by Brooks Jackson, Eugene Kiely, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley, D’Angelo Gore and Ben Finley


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