Presidential debate fact check: Our greatest geopolitical threat is …

President Obama:  “Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

 

Overview

While most fact checks have focused on the president’s “geopolitical threat” phrasing, we’re interested in the whole of the president’s argument, including the question that was supposedly asked of Gov. Romney.  Mr. Obama’s statement indicates gamesmanship or possibly confusion.

The Facts

We located no instance in which Romney offered Russia in answer to a question about the greatest threat to the United States.  Though it makes sense for journalists to ask the Obama campaign what interview the president referred to, fact checkers such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact have instead cited a CNN interview of Romney by Wolf Blitzer.

The relevant portion of the transcript:

 

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

ROMNEY: Well, I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation which aligns with the world’s famous actors. Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran and nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough, but when these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when Assad for instance is murdering its own people, we go to the United Nations and who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors, it is always Russia, typically with China alongside.

And so, in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council, and is, of course, a massive nuclear power, Russia is the geopolitical foe, and their — and the idea that our president is planning on doing something with them that he’s not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming.

 

The CNN interview took place shortly after Mr. Obama’s open mic incident with President Medvedev of Russia.  Romney identified a nuclear-armed Iran as the greatest geopolitical threat in answer to Blitzer’s question.  Iran apparently does not yet possess a nuclear weapon, so Romney comes closest to answering the issue of the greatest geopolitical threat with his mention of North Korea.

Analyzing the Rhetoric

Mr. Obama suffused his statement with a number of claims.  1)  Romney’s recognition of the threat posed by al Qaeda represents a new position in light of former statements.  2)  Romney was asked a few months ago what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America. 3)  Romney answered that Russia was the biggest geopolitical threat facing America.  4)  Romney did not say, as he should have, that al Qaeda is the biggest geopolitical threat facing America.

1)  Did Romney recognize al Qaeda as a threat contrary to Mr. Obama’s implication?

Jan 16, 2012:

 

EVANS: Governor Romney, when President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law, he enacted a provision allowing him to indefinitely detain American citizens in U.S. military custody, many, including Congressman Paul, have called it unconstitutional. At the same time the bill did provide money to continue funding U.S. troops.
Governor Romney, as president, would you have signed the National Defense Act as written?

ROMNEY
: Yes, I would have. And I do believe that it is appropriate to have in our nation the capacity to detain people who are threats to this country, who are members of al Qaeda.
Look, you have every right in this country to protest and to express your views on a wide range of issues but you don’t have a right to join a group that is killed Americans, and has declared war against America. That’s treason. In this country we have a right to take those people and put them in jail.

 

Romney, Oct. 8, 2012:

 

America can take pride in the blows that our military and intelligence professionals have inflicted on Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the killing of Osama bin Laden. These are real achievements won at a high cost. But Al-Qaeda remains a strong force in Yemen and Somalia, in Libya and other parts of North Africa, in Iraq, and now in Syria. And other extremists have gained ground across the region. Drones and the modern instruments of war are important tools in our fight, but they are no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East.

 

Romney has apparently continued to regard al Qaeda as a threat, despite claims from the Obama administration that it has “decimated” the terrorist group and placed it “on the path to defeat.”

2)  Was Romney asked about the greatest geopolitical threat facing America?

As mentioned above, we can locate no case in which Romney was asked that question.  Other fact checkers also appear to have failed in the search.  We might expect the Obama campaign to provide the information if it exists.

3)  Did Romney identify Russia as the “greatest geopolitical threat” facing America?

The widely-known statements from Romney during his interview with Wolf Blitzer do not identify Russia as the “greatest geopolitical threat” facing America.  Romney’s statements place North Korea potentially in that position, and anticipate a nuclear Iran as the greatest geopolitical threat in the near future.  Romney distinguished between Russia as “the greatest geopolitical foe” and geopolitical threats such as North Korea and Iran.

4)  Should Romney recognize al Qaeda as the “greatest geopolitical threat” as Mr. Obama implied?

Geopolitics refers to a relationship between political structure and territory.  While there is a sense in which the term is all-encompassing, it is also true that entities that control territory via a political structure receive recognition as geopolitical entities.  Romney’s use of the term was in keeping with that understanding.  We can understand a tsunami as a type of geopolitical threat.  But it makes no sense to say a tsunami is a geopolitical foe, for a tsunami does not control territory through a political structure.  It is not, in other words, a geopolitical entity.

Given this understanding, Mr. Obama’s criticism of Romney trades, perhaps intentionally, on a confusion between threats to a geopolitical entity and threats from a geopolitical entity.   Romney was talking about the latter, if we trust his explanation.  Since al Qaeda is not a geopolitical entity it is appropriate for Romney to discount al Qaeda as a geopolitical foe and to emphasize nations like North Korea and Iran as geopolitical threats.

The Cold War is over?

The traditional Cold War is over.  But obviously Russia has undertaken some steps to exert strong political influence over former parts of the Soviet Union, such as Georgia.  Poland and Romania have also recently received threats from Russia.

Obama’s concluding rhetorical strategy appears to qualify as an appeal to ridicule.  Romney supposedly should recognize that al Qaida represents America’s greatest geopolitical foe instead of Russia.  Romney’s position on threats to the United States, according to Mr. Obama’s argument, is so out of touch it is worthy of ridicule.

Mr. Obama’s argument consists of falsehoods and fallacies.

References

Kiely, Eugene. “False Claims in Final Debate.” FactCheck.org. The Annenberg Public Policy Center, 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.

Moorhead, Molly. “Obama: Romney Called Russia Our Top Geopolitical Threat.” PolitiFact. PolitiFact, 22 Oct. 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.

Romney, Mitt. “Interview With Mitt Romney.” Interview by Wolf Blitzer. The Situation Room. CNN, 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.

Yellin, Jessica. “Obama Adds ‘al Qaeda’ Back to Stump Speech.” Web log post. CNN Political Ticker. CNN, 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.

Romney, Mitt. “Speech by Mitt Romney before the Virginia Military Institute.” Speech. Virginia Military Institute, Lexington. 9 Oct. 2012. Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 9 Oct. 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.

Fineren, Daniel. “Russia to Keep Georgia Territorially Divided: Saakashvili.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 22 Oct. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.

Waterfield, Bruno. “Russia Threatens Nato with Military Strikes over Missile Defence System.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 03 May 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.

Data Element: GEOPOLITICAL ENTITY NAME AND CODE.” U S Fish & Wildlife Service. Department of the Interior, 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.

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