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Correction: At PolitiFact, we say words matter. So when we get the words wrong, it stings. At Monday’s presidential debate, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama got into a back-and-forth over whether Romney called Russia America’s No. 1 "geopolitical threat." But we fact-checked something different, whether Romney said Russia was America’s No. 1 "geopolitical foe." We mischaracterized the president’s remarks, which affected our ruling. We have updated the item with the exact quote and changed our ruling accordingly.
In the final debate of the presidential campaign, President Barack Obama tried to portray challenger Mitt Romney as a novice who lacks understanding of complex world issues.
"Gov. 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 ... 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," Obama said.
We’ve heard the president make that charge about Russia before, using similar words. Here’s what we found.
The hot mic
In March 2012, at a summit in South Korea, Obama was caught in a "hot mic" incident. Without realizing he could be overheard, Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more ability to negotiate with the Russians about missile defense after the November election.
"On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space," Obama was heard telling Medvedev, apparently referring to incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin.
"Yeah, I understand," Medvedev replied.
Obama interjected, saying, "This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility."
The exchange drew swift rebuke from Republicans, who accused Obama of caving on an important security issue. Romney quickly joined the chorus of critics.
In a March 26 interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, he said the president seemed to be willing to negotiate with Russians on matters he was hiding from the American people.
Said Romney: "This is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight for every cause for the world's worst actors. The idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed."
Blitzer asked Romney if he thought Russia is a bigger foe than Iran, China or North Korea.
"I'm saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world's worst actors," Romney said. "Of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran, and a 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 ... who is it that always stands up with the world's worst actors? It's 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 is a massive nuclear power, Russia is the geopolitical foe."
Romney followed that interview a day later with an op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine.
In that piece, he never used the word "enemy" or "foe" to describe Russia. But he did depict it as an adversary and referred to its "intransigence."
"Without extracting meaningful concessions from Russia, (Obama) abandoned our missile defense sites in Poland. He granted Russia new limits on our nuclear arsenal. He capitulated to Russia's demand that a United Nations resolution on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program exclude crippling sanctions," Romney wrote. "Moscow has rewarded these gifts with nothing but obstructionism at the United Nations on a whole raft of issues. It has continued to arm the regime of Syria's vicious dictator and blocked multilateral efforts to stop the ongoing carnage there. Across the board, it has been a thorn in our side on questions vital to America's national security. For three years, the sum total of President Obama's policy toward Russia has been: ‘We give, Russia gets.’"
Later, on a multi-nation trip in July designed to beef up his foreign policy credentials, Romney condemned Russia as a "country where the desire to be free is met with brutal oppression."
The second interview
Romney spoke again to CNN’s Blitzer in July. Romney’s campaign previously pointed us to this exchange:
Blitzer: "The last time you and I spoke in an interview, you told me that Russia was America’s No. 1 geostrategic foe. Do you still believe that?"
Romney: "There's no question but that in terms of geopolitics -- I’m talking about votes at the United Nations and actions of a geopolitical nature -- Russia is the No. 1 adversary in that regard. That doesn't make them an enemy. It doesn’t make them a combatant. They don't represent the No. 1 national security threat. The No. 1 national security threat, of course, to our nation is a nuclear Iran. Time continues to pass. They continue to move towards nuclearization. This is more and more disconcerting and dangerous to the world. But Russia -- particularly look at a place like Syria. Russia has supported the Assad regime even as it has been attacking its own people. Russia likewise has been slow to move to the kinds of sanctions that have been called for in Iran. Russia is a geopolitical adversary, but it's not an enemy with, you know, missiles being fired at one another or things of that nature."
So in this interview, as he would do later in the debate, Romney emphasized the difference between Russia, his No. 1 foe or enemy for the United States, and Iran, his No. 1 threat because of its effort to build nuclear weapons.
Romney responds in the debate
After a few minutes of back and forth, Romney had a chance to respond to Obama’s charge about Russia:
"I'll respond to a couple of things that you mentioned. First of all, Russia I indicated is a geopolitical foe. Not ... Excuse me. It's a geopolitical foe, and I said in the same -- in the same paragraph I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I'm certainly not going to say to him, I'll give you more flexibility after the election.
So Romney revised his own remarks, this time calling Russia "a" geopolitical foe, when to CNN he said "our No. 1 geopolitical foe." But he’s right that in the same interview he called Iran the top national security threat.
In the debate, Obama said Romney called Russia "the biggest geopolitical threat facing America."
Actually, Romney has twice drawn the distinction between his concerns about Iran and Russia. He has called Russia the biggest geopolitical foe or enemy for the U.S., but he has said the biggest threat is Iran.
We rate Obama’s statement Half True.
PolitiFact, "Obama says Romney called Russia our ‘No. 1 enemy,’" Sept. 7, 2012
CNN’s The Situation Room, "Romney: Russia is our number one geopolitical foe," March 26, 2012
Foreign Policy, "Bowing to the Kremlin," March 27, 2012
Washington Post, "Caught on open mike, Obama tells Medvedev he needs ‘space’ on missile defense," March 26, 2012
The Telegraph (UK), "Mitt Romney brings international tour to end with attack on Russia," July 31, 2012
Email interview with Ryan Williams, Romney campaign spokesman, Sept. 7, 2012
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