Fact-Checking The Candidates' Debate During their debate Friday night, Barack Obama and John McCain clashed on the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and on the U.S. role in the world. A flare-up over Iran was the most contentious part of the debate. Were the candidates' statements about their foreign policy positions truthful?
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Fact-Checking The Candidates' Debate

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Fact-Checking The Candidates' Debate

Fact-Checking The Candidates' Debate

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, we remember Paul Newman. But first, last night's presidential debate started with the main question on most voters' minds, that's the economy, before turning to what had been planned to be the focus of the debate, and that's foreign policy. Senators Obama and McCain clashed on the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. role in the world. NPR's Tom Gjelten joins us for some fact checking. Tom, thanks for being with us.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And when the conversation turned to Iran, the senators debated whether it was worth sitting down and talking to Iran's president. Let's take a listen.


SIMON: The notion that we would sit with Ahmadinejad and not say anything while he's spewing his nonsense and his vile comments is ridiculous. Nobody is even talking about...

SIMON: So let me get this straight. We sit down with Ahmadinejad and he says, we're going to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, and we say, no, you're not? Oh, please.

SIMON: No...

SIMON: By the way, my friend, Dr. Kissinger, who's been my friend for 35 years, would be interested to hear this conversation and Senator Obama's conviction of his positions on the issue. I've known him for 35 years...

SIMON: We will take a look...

SIMON: And I guarantee he would not - he would not say that presidential top level...

SIMON: Nobody is talking about that.

SIMON: Of course he encourages, and other people encourage contacts and negotiations and all other things. We do that all the time.

U: We're going to go to a new question.

SIMON: And Senator Obama is parsing words when he says pre-condition means preparation. He's parsing words, my friends.

SIMON: I am not parsing words. I'm using the same words that your advisers use.

SIMON: So what's the truth here, Tom?

GJELTEN: Well, Scott. This was certainly the most contentious part of the debate. And the issue goes back to a statement that Senator Obama made during the primary season when he was asked, along with other candidates, whether he would be willing, as president, to meet without pre-condition during the first year of his administration with leaders of Iran as well as with other countries. And he said he would.

Now, a couple of points. One, he didn't specify who in particular. And one of the points that Senator Obama has made is that he didn't necessarily mean he would meet with Ahmadinejad in particular. He also clarified, as he just did again now, that there would have to be preparations for those conversations. But he is on the record as saying he would do it as president, not sending a Secretary of State over or someone else. Now in this debate, he sort of backed off that and he said nobody is talking about presidential level, but he is on the record as saying that he would have done that.

Now, he referred to former Secretary of State Kissinger as supporting his position. Kissinger has, in fact, called for direct talks with Iran without pre-condition. But he put out a statement last night saying, again, that he would not - was not recommending that these talks take place at the presidential level. That's the key issue, and Obama has revised his position on this.

SIMON: Couple of things. Senator McCain, talking about the $700 billion rescue plan that might soon be passed, he said, look, we're sending 700 billion a year overseas to countries that don't like us very much. Is that true?

GJELTEN: Well, Scott, you know, my first thought when I heard that was that he was talking about foreign aid, but foreign aid only amounts to about $39 billion a year. He was apparently referring to what the United States spends on oil, and he's made that point before on foreign oil. A lot of that money, of course, does go to countries that are adversaries of United States, but it's not something that you can control as president. That's not in the federal budget. You certainly couldn't replace that overnight. So that was kind of a non-sequitur.

SIMON: On Iraq, Senator McCain said that Senator Obama's original plan would have U.S. forces out of Iraq before the surge had had a chance to succeed. Is that true?

GJELTEN: Senator McCain has said, and he said again last night, that the surge has already succeeded. Now Senator Obama, his original plan would not have called for U.S. troops to be out by now. So on a literal basis, that's not quite true. But Senator Obama did call for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq in early 2007. He made the first speech to that effect in November of 2006. Once he became a candidate, he said it could be one or two brigades a month coming out of Iraq and having them all out in 16 months. The surge was announced in January of 2007. With Obama's original plan, it would have been well underway. The withdrawal would have been well underway by the time the surge was a success. But whether it would have been completed is not so clear.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Gjelton.

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