While Henry A. Kissinger traveled to China twice before President Nixon’s famous visit in 1972, it’s tough to argue that represents the “many times” Sen. John McCain claimed during Friday night’s presidential debate that the then-national security adviser visited the communist state.
And a scholar of the Middle East says Sen. Barack Obama may have slipped when he indicated there had been a history of violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq before the current war.
There were no big whoppers, but each candidate in the first presidential debate made his share of mistakes, flubs and fact-shaving, helping muddy what for many voters must seem an already murky campaign.
Mr. Obama was briefly stumped by the name of the fallen U.S. soldier whose bracelet he wears, while Mr. McCain stumbled over the name of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and got wrong the name of the new Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, calling him “Kadari.”
While agreeing that spending needs to be controlled, Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama disagreed on the size of earmarks, which congressional lawmakers use to direct funding to pet projects.
“Let’s be clear: earmarks account for $18 billion in last year’s budget,” Mr. Obama said, arguing they are important but pale in comparison to the size of the budget deficit. But Mr. McCain said that figure doesn’t actually capture the true extent of earmarks.
“It’s a lot more than $18 billion in pork-barrel spending. I can tell you it’s rife. It’s throughout,” Mr. McCain said. He also said earmarks have “tripled in the last five years.”
The problem is that there’s no standard definition of what constitutes an earmark, much less which earmarks should be given the pejorative label of pork-barrel spending. The Office of Management and Budget says there were 11,524 earmarks in fiscal year 2008 for a total of $16.5 billion, while Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a watchdog group that produces the annual “Congressional Pig Book,” counted 11,610 projects for a total of $17.2 billion.
Complicating matters, some lawmakers use statistics from the Congressional Research Service to argue that the totals are far higher - as much as $64 billion in fiscal year 2006. By comparison, CAGW calculated earmarks at $29 billion in 2006.
But no matter the figure, Mr. McCain’s assertion that earmarks have tripled is inaccurate. CAGW said there were 9,362 earmarks in 2003 for a total of $22.5 billion, meaning the number has risen 24 percent while the dollar amount has actually fallen 24 percent.
On foreign policy, where the debate was complicated and extensive, a scholar says Mr. Obama got it wrong when he blasted Mr. McCain as naive for saying there hadn’t been a history of Sunni-Shi’ite violence in Iraq.
Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, writing at historiae.org, called that “an unfounded attack on Iraq’s record of coexistence.”
“This is to ignore the historical record of coexistence between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq and the fervent anti-Iranian attitudes among large sections of Iraq’s Shi’ites,” he wrote.
As for Mr. McCain’s claim about “many” trips to lay the groundwork for Mr. Nixon’s trip to China, Mr. Kissinger in fact made two 1971 trips - a secret visit in July and another in October.
Still, for purposes of fact-checking, it helps when the referee is a supporter - as was the case when Mr. Obama said Mr. Kissinger has called for talks with Iranian leaders without precondition, backing up Mr. Obama’s vow to meet as president with rogue foreign leaders.
In fact Mr. Kissinger had said there should be high-level talks but not at the presidential level. He made that clear again Friday night, just moments after the debate ended.
“My views on this issue are entirely compatible with the views of my friend Senator John McCain,” Mr. Kissinger told the Weekly Standard in a comment posted on the magazine’s Web site and immediately circulated by the McCain campaign.