Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Did Bush sit on troop request?

Former vice president Dick Cheney recently leveled a withering criticism of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, rather than attempting to specifically rebut Cheney's criticisms, fired off a counterattack at Cheney. And PolitiFact took note, after a fashion.

The issue:

Gibbs' retort addresses Cheney's charge that President Obama is "dithering" over a troop request for Afghanistan with a "you, too!" accusation that Bush did the same thing only worse.

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley: writer, researcher
Greg Joyce: editor


This seems like another of those fact-checking instances where the would-be investigators thought something along the lines of "Wouldn't that just be like Bush to ignore a troop request?" followed by sufficient investigation to confirm what certainly must be true. It's hard to imagine how else Farley and Joyce could flub this one so badly.

Let us track Farley's course, then, and track his missteps.

Gibbs is referring here to a request for additional troops made by the previous top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, during President George W. Bush's final year in office.

McKiernan made his requests public in a press conference in September 2008 in Afghanistan, saying he needed at least three more combat brigades, in addition to the one Bush had promised in January. He said more soldiers and resources were needed to stabilize insurgencies in Afghanistan.

Farley's reporting here is accurate, but requires a bit of explanation.

Note that the request was pending during Bush's final year in office. Note that troops were "promised in January." Farley's language here is somewhat ambiguous, permitting the interpretation that Bush had made a promise in January of 2008 to send an additional brigade to Afghanistan at some later point. However, it actually means (regardless of how Farley took it) that Bush had promised to send a brigade to Afghanistan in January of 2009. The timing is significant, of course, because Jan. 2009 represents Bush's last month in office.

So, rather than dithering over the troop request, as Gibbs' statement implies, Bush had already acted to address the request to the extent possible given troop commitments in Iraq at the time.

Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard did some of the legwork neglected by Farley on this issue:

I couldn't reach Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but I did talk to a senior defense official who serves with him. This person stressed that Gates has gone to great lengths to avoid being dragged into political fights between administrations. Nonetheless, he offered a strong rebuke to the present White House political team.

"There was no request on anyone's desk for eight months," said the defense official. "There was not a request that went to the White House because we didn't have forces to commit. So on the facts, they're wrong."

Even when Farley quotes essentially the same information from Obama, he can't seem to put the pieces together:

According to a story in the Baltimore Sun on Feb. 18, 2009, "The deployment is Obama's response to a long-standing request from commanders in Afghanistan for more troops. The commanders have sought four more combat brigades, aviation units and other support, representing an increase of more than 20,000 troops."

In a March speech outlining a new strategy for the war there, Obama said that "for six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq."

Obama then seemed to take a swipe at the Bush administration when he added that he ordered the additional troops to satisfy a request that came from Gen. McKiernan "for many months."

Shouldn't we expect a competent reporter to pick up on the notion that Afghanistan didn't get the full four brigades from Bush because of troop commitments in Iraq? At least if we give Obama the benefit of the doubt?

Whereas the misdirection by Gibbs ought to earn a "Pants on Fire!" rating for sheer chutzpah, Farley and PolitiFact rate the White House spokesperson with an unqualified "True":

The public doesn't have access to McKiernan's formal request for more troops. But we know that he was talking about it publicly in September 2008, at least 4 1/2 months before the end of Bush's term. And McKiernan told reporters his request went back nearly to the start of his taking over as the top U.S. commander four months before that. That would suggest Gibb's claim is correct that it had been sitting on desks in the White House for eight months. And so we rule his statement True.

Pathetic, as is often the case with PolitiFact.

The tag "journalists reporting badly" applies.

The grades:

Robert Farley: F
Greg Joyce: F

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