Facts and fiction in foreign policy presidential debate

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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:

Syria

Mr. Obama said he was confident that [Bashar] "Assad's days are numbered." Yet 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.

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. In contrast, 19 months into the uprising, Mr. 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 outside military help for the rebels, experts say, Mr. Assad could hang on for many months, or even years.

Mr. Romney blasted Mr. 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. But the Syrian dissidents themselves are deeply divided.

Libya

Mr. Obama's notion that U.S. interlocutors only worked with a relatively moderate opposition 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, lead partner in the NATO alliance, supported those rebels militarily. Many of the most seasoned fighters were veteran jihadists, including some who had fought U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. When the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked in September, attackers used rocket-propelled grenades that may have come from Gadhafi's arsenal.

Iran

Mr. 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 nation's main enrichment facility at Natanz.

He was correct in noting that work has continued. Iran has installed thousands of centrifuges in Natanz, brought online 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 detected by U.N. inspectors and monitors, putting Iran's facilities at risk of U.S. airstrikes, most experts agree.

Mr. Romney largely supported the tough economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the Obama administration but said he would have imposed them earlier.

In what appeared to be a significant geographical gaffe, Mr. 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.

Iraq

Mr. Obama criticized Mr. Romney for suggesting we should have troops in Iraq to this day. But Mr. Romney pointed out correctly that Mr. 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. Mr. 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 the Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqi government. He did ensure that the timetable was met.

Military matters

The president said "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 United States spends more on defense than the next 10 nations combined, the president's contention that U.S. 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.

Mr. 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.

Egypt

Mr. 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. His comments sidestep the fact that his administration wavered at the start of the Egyptian revolt, when its security forces were using extreme force against Tahrir Square protesters.

Mr. Romney repeated his claim that Mr. Obama's foreign policy was "unraveling," rattling off countries where instability and violence have followed Arab Spring revolts. The tumult, he said, brought "a rising tide of chaos." But analysts who have closely followed the Middle East say there's little any U.S. president could have done to have contained the spontaneous, regionwide uprisings and avoided the threats to U.S. interests in the region, namely replacing U.S.-friendly authoritarians with a new crop of Islamist politicians from the Muslim Brotherhood and other more conservative groups.

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