What Obama and Romney will say about Libya, China and Iran—and what’s the truth

Monday's debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.—the last of the presidential race—will focus on foreign policy. What can we expect from President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who are neck-at-neck in recent polls? Some bluster on China, hedging on Libya, and possibly, silence on Syria. Naturally, expect some campaign spin as well.

To clear the candidates' smoke around foreign affairs, we've collected and fact-checked the key foreign policy points to keep in mind during the debate, from trade to terror.


Romney: The president's greatest vulnerability on foreign policy is possibly the controversy surrounding the terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and his team in Benghazi, Libya on September 11 of this year. The attack remains subject of an ongoing investigation, so any discussion suffers for a lack of the complete, official account of what happened that day.

In the last debate, when answering a question about Benghazi, the candidates spent almost the entire time discussing the semantics of phrases like "act of terror" rather than scrutinizing the actual attack. Romney accused the president of refusing to call the murders a terrorist attack until 12 days after the incident.

Romney will probably avoid fussing over vocabulary this time around. At the Town Hall-style debate last Tuesday he was fact-checked in real time by moderator Candy Crowley. As she noted, 18 hours after the event, President Obama said this in the Rose Garden:

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.

As for the statements of Ambassador Susan Rice—whom Romney and Republicans claim diverted from the "terrorism" message, calling the murders spontaneous on Sep. 16—it's been known for some time that she and other officials were given talking points by the CIA, which ended up muddying the administration's position on the nature of the attack.

There are many other aspects of the president's handling of the attack that Romney may criticize—but if he returns to the "terror" talk, Obama is likely to have the transcript ready.

Obama: At the same time, the president is not being fully straightforward about why the Benghazi issue has become such a hot topic.

What is clear so far—from testimony given to a House investigation of the attack—is that the State Department denied requests for increased security personnel from its regional security officer for Libya, Eric Nordstrom; this included the city of Benghazi, where Stevens and his team were stationed. President Obama has not discussed this aspect of the controversy at any point when discussing the attack, either in the last debate or when recently addressing the matter on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

However, it is also worth noting that, according to Nordstrom's statements, the security requests were not chiefly regarding the outpost in Benghazi, but rather the the American Embassy in Tripoli.

President Obama will likely continue to avoid any direct comment on the potential negligence of the State Department in this matter, especially since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone on record exculpating the president of any of the decision-making that took place leading up to the attack.


Romney: Both candidates have heard the American people loud and clear: most people have totally soured on the continuing war effort in Afghanistan. The fact that only 27 percent of the public believes in the campaign has now motivated a usually hawkish Mitt Romney to lend his support to the president's 2014 withdrawal plan.

In a recent interview to ABC, GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan claimed that his running mate has "always agreed" with the timetable. Politifact uncovered several instances in which Romney did indeed voice support for that deadline—but usually with the hyper-qualifying addition that he would have to judge the "situation on the ground."

This could be the difference between withdrawal in 2014 and a renewed commitment to infrastructure, counterinsurgency, and military training in Afghanistan for several more years. As Josh Rogin notes in Foreign Policy magazine, even notable Republicans are aware of the elasticity of Romney's declared Afghanistan policy; and so while it is not a claim in direct conflict with the truth, his insistence that he has a clearly defined broad strategy for America's longest and now very unpopular war does not ring true with many both in and out of his party.


Romney: Romney is known to downplay the observable effects of the Obama administration's sanctions on Iran. He repeats variations on the line that he delivered earlier this year: that Obama "could have gotten crippling sanctions against Iran," but did not.

Given that Obama has presided over biting sanctions on the Islamic Republic—sanctions that Iran's leaders identify as responsible for the battering of its currency and wider economic turmoil—this talking point requires clarification. When asked about it, Romney's campaign told PolitiFact that the GOP candidate was specifically referring to an instance in 2010 when the administration failed to pass a U.N. resolution sanctioning the Iranian Central Bank.

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Setting aside the probability that the veto-prone U.N. giants Russia and China would've blocked that particular resolution if it were pushed by any U.S. administration, it looks as though Romney is hoping this maneuver will come off to undecided voters as a broader failing of Obama's Iran policy

Obama: The Obama campaign has pushed back on this Romney line, stating that the president is waging an unprecedented diplomatic and economic effort to squelch the ayatollah's nuclear program. But the administration overreaches when it makes statements giving the impression that before Obama's presidency "there was no international pressure on Iran," to quote VP Biden.

PolitiFact.com notes a few serious international initiatives the Bush administration undertook to stifle the Iranians' nuclear program:

  • Resolution 1737, passed in 2006, which banned trade with Iran in all items, materials, equipment, goods and technology that could contribute to the country's development of nuclear-weapon delivery systems.

  • Resolution 1747, adopted in 2007, which banned the country's arms exports and restricted the travel of additional individuals engaged in Iran's nuclear activities.

  • Resolution 1803, approved in 2008, which froze the assets of people involved in the nuclear program.

Despite the current campaign of sanctions, the theocratic regime has not renounced its nuclear ambitions. However, rumblings this past weekend of possible one-on-one negotiations has analysts wondering if there may finally be ground for a diplomatic solution.

So while Romney will likely try to undermine the severity of the administration's sanctions, expect Obama to leave out the fact that, not only do sanctions predate his taking office, but they still haven't achieved their main purpose.


Obama: The tall tales over "sticking it to China" continue: in the last debate, Obama turned to his opponent and said, "you're the last person who's gonna get tough on China."

This came after the usual attacks on Romney for investing in Chinese firms; the president often alleges that Romney is a "job exporter" and usually exaggerates the personal involvement the GOP nominee has had in his investments abroad. Super PACs supportive of the president echo this line of attack, broadcasting that thousands of Chinese employees "owe their jobs" to Romney.

While it's true that a good deal of Romney's money is invested in China, Obama's charges that Bain-affiliated companies shunned America while running straight for Asia are mostly misleading: a larger trend in the global market determined their production would be located in China.

What's more, Obama tends to conflate the fact that many Chinese employees found jobs at companies that Romney had invested in with the more controversial idea that Romney "outsourced" American jobs as a matter of protocol.

Romney: Last time around, Romney repeated his charge that the president allows China to cheat trade agreements through currency manipulation, declaring that Obama has had "seven opportunities to stop them" by slapping the "manipulator" label on Beijing via the Treasury. Romney says he wouldn't hesitate to use the label, which would pave the way for settling the issue via the International Monetary Fund.

It's true that the Obama administration has passed labeling China a "manipulator," but what makes this charge hyperbolic is that it's never been clear that doing so would stop it from cheating. As PolitiFact notes, it was tried in 1994 to no avail. Plus, the idea that the Obama administration has simply been appeasing China amid its economic mischief is false: Sticking with Romney's magic number, the administration has filed seven trade complaints against China through the WTO.