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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 12/ 6/2007

Clinton vs Obama: The 'Fact Check' War

By Michael Dobbs

Democratic Debate in Philadelphia, October 30, 2007.

"Sen. Obama Shifts On Using American Forces In Iraq To Blunt Iranian Threat"
--Posting on Hillary Clinton "The Fact Hub" site, December 4, 2007.

"Fact Check: Clinton's False Claim that Obama Shifted on Iran
--Posting on Barack Obama "Fact Check" site, December 4, 2007.

I don't know about the rest of you, but the true Fact Checker finds these faux "Fact Check" sites quite disorientating. By "faux," I mean that their purpose is not really to set the record straight, but to attack political rivals. Most of the posts on the Hillary Clinton "Fact Hub" site are devoted to attacking Barack Obama. Similarly, over on Obama's "Fact Check" site, the truth-squadding is primarily directed against Clinton. Surprise, surprise.

The two posts above--"Obama Shifts" and "Clinton's False Claim"--are models of their kind. Each campaign uses quotes selectively to attack the other side and to accuse the rival candidate of distorting the truth. It is so artfully done that it can be difficult to sort out the true facts. But let's take a stab at it.

The Facts

Both Clinton and Obama have outlined plans for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. I looked at these plans here and here. While there are some differences between their plans, both candidates have talked about keeping a residual force in Iraq to battle Al-Qaeda and protect U.S. interests in the country. Both candidates have also said that it is in the U.S. "national interest" to counter the influence of Iran.

Here is what Obama had to say on Iraq and Iran in a November 2006 speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs:

It is conceivable that a significantly reduced U.S. force might remain in Iraq for a more extended period of time [if the Iraqi government fulfills a number of conditions, including disbanding militias and moving toward political reconciliation.] Such a reduced but active presence will also send a clear message to hostile countries like Iran and Syria that we intend to remain a key player in this region.

He then called for stepped-up diplomacy, leading to a Middle East Peace conference, and added the following:

Make no mistake - if the Iranians and Syrians think they can use Iraq as another Afghanistan or a staging area from which to attack Israel or other countries, they are badly mistaken. It is in our national interest to prevent this from happening.

During a debate on NPR on Tuesday, Obama attacked Clinton for voting for a September 2007 Senate resolution, known as the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, that draws a link between the U.S. military presence in Iraq and containment of the Iranian threat. (See page 7 for the language on Iran.) The resolution then continues:

It is a vital national interest of the United States to prevent the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran from turning Shi'a militia extremists in Iraq into a Hezbollah-like force that could serve its interests inside Iraq, including by overwhelming, subverting, or co-opting institutions of the legitimate Government of Iraq.

The Clinton campaign claims that there is no significant difference between this language and Obama's November 2006 speech. Stripped down to their essentials, both statements talk about using a residual force in Iraq to send "a clear message" to Iran. The Obama campaign argues that the message that Obama wants to send Iran is primarily a diplomatic one, not a military one.

It seems fairly clear what is happening here. Obama is attempting to maximize his differences with Clinton because he wants to present himself as the candidate of "change" and "new ideas." Clinton is trying to minimize the policy differences, and present herself as the more experienced, battle-tested candidate.

The Pinocchio Test

There are real differences between the candidates on Iraq. Obama has presented a clearer timetable for withdrawal than his rival. Unlike Clinton, he can also claim to have opposed the Iraq war all along. Nevertheless, on the substance of this particular exchange, the Clinton camp has the better of the argument.

Obama has stated that it is in the "national interest" of the United States to prevent Teheran from turning Iraq into "another Afghanistan." He is also on record as saying that a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq will send a "clear message" to countries like Iran. Set against the background of these statements, his current insistence that he will contain Iran entirely through diplomacy seems somewhat tortuous. Two Pinocchios for him.

On the other hand, the Clinton "Fact Hub" site takes Obama's quotes out of context, and over-simplifies his position. One Pinocchio for her.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | December 6, 2007; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  1 Pinocchio, 2 Pinocchios, Barack Obama, Candidate Watch, Iraq, Other Foreign Policy  
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Next: The Fact Checker Fact Checks The Post


Every time I check the Fact Checker's latest article, I come away disappointed. In the above case, he seems to miss the difference between using diplomatic means to solve international relations problems and declaring a unit of a foreign government a terrorist organization. It is entirely consistent for Sen Obama to both criticize Sen Clinton's support for Kyl-Lieberman & argue for diplomacy as a preferred alternative to military action. In this case it is particularly important to recall our government's prior declarations of intent to pursue terrorists in whatever safe havens they find. By declaring the Iranian Rev Guard a terrorist organization, we would be making a declaration of intent to pursue the IRG, by military force if necessary, potentially including military strikes in Iran. Sadly, understanding the significance of such seems to be above the heads of far too many people in this country - a group that apparently includes the Fact Checker.

Posted by: bsimon | December 6, 2007 8:54 AM | Report abuse

Do you KNOW anythiing about Obama?
He sponsered a bill labeling the Iranian Guard "terrorists" before he forgot to show up for the vote on the K/L bill.
I.E. , he was for it when his name was on it, but against it when his name was missing.
Similarly, though he says he's against the wwar in Iraq , he's voted for every funding bill and AGAINST every plan to withdrawl troops (until, that is, he followed the majority of Dems, on this last vote)
He's bushlike in his saying one thing and doing another, and like bush supporters, Obama supporters only hear what he says, they never pay attention to what he does.

Posted by: B.Williams | December 6, 2007 9:31 AM | Report abuse

The Fact Checker has fallen into the trap of overanalyzing trivial differences between these two candidates with the goal of trying to turn molehills into mountains. In essence, he is playing the same game as the candidates themselves. Is this really necessary?

Posted by: judgeccrater | December 6, 2007 11:06 AM | Report abuse

What if the FACT CHECKER wrote an article and no one read it? Perhaps it is time to boycott him and demand the Post replace him with someone worth the title.

It is clear Michael Dobbs has an agenda and we should just leave him to it. Alone. By himself. With crickets chirping in the background.

Like bsimon above, and many others, I continue to be baffled by Dobbs' continuing inability to recognize a fact when he sees it -- especially if it goes against his gal-pal Hillary or her buddy Dubya. The other day, in light of the revelations of the NIE, which shows Bush knew and lied about Iran, the FACT CHECKER didn't award any coveted Pinocchios... "pending" was the word he used.

Let's make a statement and BOYCOTT Dobbs. We seem to be able to do our own fact-checking far more effectively -- regardless of what our political affiliations are -- than Dobbs does.

Posted by: jade7243 | December 6, 2007 11:54 AM | Report abuse

This was not one of the better Fact Checker columns. It seems like the purpose is mostly to check the candidates' "fact check" claims, but conflated a bit with the substance of the claims.

I don't care whether Hillary's or Obama's "fact check" sites is the more misleading. They're on candidates' web sites; they aren't supposed to be neutral. And they aren't the candidates' higher-profile claims, either. By picking up the subject the Fact Checker played small ball today.

The substance of their claims is the more important matter, but probably beyond the purview of the Fact Checker. It matters that these two Dems as well as Edwards give upbeat speeches about how they're going to "bring the troops home" but still leave a bunch in the Middle East, and attain all forms of military and political objectives by doing so. It's pathetic logic. If it makes sense to bring some troops home, that means it's acceptable to cede some ground to forces hostile to America (Al Qaeda, Iran, Syria, etc.). No candidate says pulling troops out of Baghdad is a benefit worth the cost of ceding Baghdad to militas. That's fundamentally dishonest, and it will show through in the general election campaign.

The pinocchios were probably about right for the fact-checking of the fact check sites, but as far as the candidates' actual positions, at least three pinocchios would be due to each of them.

Posted by: The Angry One | December 6, 2007 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Angry one: Of course they are on candidates websites and therefore amount to propaganda. Does this mean we should allow them to misrepresent the positions of others on their websites but not in speeches? Can they misrepresent others but not lie about other things? And if we allow that, can they lie to us once they get in to office? Where do you draw the line?

The fact checker is absolutely right to do this. I don't care how trivial it may seem to uneducated minds - after 8 years of absolute deception at every level, it's time we start demanding absolutely honesty from political candidates.

And Jade - you need to start reading something more on your level.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 6, 2007 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I've noticed that this Washington Post "fact checker" leans heavily towards the Hillary Clinton campaign. This person is biased and is an obvious Clinton supporter. I don't put much faith into this person's rating of who's telling the truth.

"Obama, Obama, Obama!!"

"We don't want Bush-Cheney lite" aka Hillary Clinton.

Posted by: Baller4Life | December 6, 2007 1:26 PM | Report abuse

I'm a bit disappointed by the tailored logic here. While this is a fair appraisal of the statements mentioned, Mr. Dobbs aka the Fact Checker, omits the Obama argument that the Kyl-Lieberman "terrorist organization" clause could be used as a pretext to attack Iran. This is the substantive difference between the Chicago CGA speech and the vote for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. The Iran Fact Checker discussion has no merit until this point is addressed.

Posted by: KW | December 6, 2007 1:32 PM | Report abuse

(Obama supporter)
KW's post is dead-on. Obscurantism ought to be a disqualifying characteristic in a journalist or commentator for a major newspaper. As KW points out, there is a big philosophical difference between Clinton and Obama on the use of military and diplomatic pressure abroad. Clinton as recently as February 2005 was saying things were going well in Iraq--apparently so well that she wants to create A-Different-World spinoff in Iran. Senator Clinton fetishizes military strength and hawkish words, apparently out of fear of appearing weak. Senator Obama's position on use of force is more skeptical and more reasonable. Kudos to KW. Three Smithers to "Fact Checker."

Posted by: wesfromGA | December 6, 2007 1:58 PM | Report abuse

From anonymous (unless you're the mysterious Mr. Dobbs): "And Jade - you need to start reading something more on your level."

I'll take that to mean something more intelligent, accurate and responsible than the Fact Checker. And based on the comments here so far, I wouldn't be the one in pursuit of better. Thanks!

Posted by: jade7243 | December 6, 2007 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Wow. It's one thing to read skewed news from a website that you know leans one way or the other. It's very disturbing to read something labled as a "fact check" and be so full of omissions. Then you add in the fact that this is on the Washington Post's website.

Posted by: yabadaba | December 6, 2007 6:09 PM | Report abuse

I do believe that there are more glaring lies out there than these, which are essentially run-of-the-mill jockeying to define a cadidate.

Also, Tehran is not spelled 'Teheran,' though its proper pronunciation is more similar to the latter.

Posted by: Gabriel Froymovich | December 6, 2007 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Taking the Fact Checker at face value, I'm still mystified why Obama's "insistence that he will contain Iran entirely through diplomacy seems somewhat tortuous" and therefore earns him TWO Pinochio's while Clinton's "take[ing] Obama's quotes out of context, and over-simplif[ying] his position" only earns her one.

Re: Obama, the idea that diplomacy must be performed from a position of military strength is hardly new, and Clinton's fact-picking seems far more focused and intentional. Why is Clinton's intentional attempt to make Obama look bad (however appropriate such is for HER site) less bad than Obama's position, which at least seems to be an honest one (however much he wishes to de-emphasize the military role)?

Posted by: B-W | December 6, 2007 7:45 PM | Report abuse

For all you uninformed: My quote "Accuse your opponent of doing what you are doing, and in that way you will know what you are doing."

Posted by: lylepink | December 6, 2007 10:48 PM | Report abuse

I am not sure where the clear differences between Clinton and Obama are on Iraq unless you are a supporter of one or the other and being biased.

Both of them and Edwards as well refused to promise to have all troops out of Iraq by the end of their first terms. They all used different reasons for it but it remains the same in the end. No one can predict now where this will lead and we are stuck with this Bush policy. Clinton and Edwards voted to give the President the right to go to war- not to go to war- and Obama though he opposed that vote has said he doesn't know how he would have voted had he been in the Senate and then when he got there proceeded to vote for every money bill Bush asked for and didn't become vocally anti-war till he began to run for President in earnest.

So this whole idea of parsing their positiions by a biased fact-checker is one of the silliest things the Post has done. I hope they aren't paying much for this as it is worth nothing.

Posted by: peter dc | December 7, 2007 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Right, the three "top" candidates are all for continuing US military presence in Iraq. Richardson and Kucinich are for ending the war. Personally, I plan on voting for Richardson, but more importantly, if you really want to end the war, vote for a candidate who is promising to do so, not just the "front-runner." Hopefully we've learned the lessons of '04 and will vote our conscious and not based on some non-existent quality like "electability."

Posted by: David | December 8, 2007 5:00 PM | Report abuse

In response to User BWilliams ,

-Taylor Marsh misuses Obama's co-sponsorship of the Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007.

The Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007 that Obama voted for had language that specifically stated:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed as authorizing the use of force or the use of the United States Armed Forces against Iran.

This act was about economic sanctions rather than military action, something that Obama has long advocated. It specifically checks any potential use to go to war. It also does not connect Iran with Iraq as does the Kyl-Lieberman bill.

Posted by: kris | December 8, 2007 5:36 PM | Report abuse

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