Presidential debate 101: Did Obama make 'apology tour' in Middle East?

In Monday night's presidential debate, Mitt Romney attacked President Obama's Middle East positions, saying that when the president traveled there, he characterized America as 'dismissive and derisive.'

Alan Diaz/AP
President Barack Obama holds up a copy of his plan for jobs as he speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Delray Beach, Fla., Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, a day after his last debate with Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Has President Obama ever gone on an apology tour in the Middle East during which he criticized America while speaking publicly in various nations?

Mitt Romney has long said Mr. Obama did just that. This has been one of the foundational assertions of the Romney campaign: The Massachusetts ex-governor even titled his campaign autobiography “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” We bring this up now because Mr. Romney reiterated the charge Monday night during the third and final presidential debate. Does the record really support such a claim?

First, let’s look at Romney’s full reference and Obama’s response.

When answering a question from moderator Bob Schieffer about the possibility of talks with Iran over its nuclear program, Romney shifted to a general attack on Obama’s Middle East positions.

Near the beginning of his administration, “the president began what I’ve called an apology tour of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America,” Romney said. “I think they looked at that and saw weakness.”

Obama, who was combative throughout the debate, didn’t just absorb this hit. He said the notion of him apologizing just isn’t true.

“This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign,” Obama said. “And every fact-checker and every reporter who’s looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.”

But Romney did not back down. He then gave a slightly fuller explanation, saying, “Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to ... Turkey and Iraq.... And then in those nations and on Arabic TV, you said that America has been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America has dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”

OK, there are lots of strands to untangle here. We’ll start with the first one: Romney has made a subtle change in his “apology tour” reference here. Earlier in the campaign, he simply said Obama went on such a tour. Now he’s changed that and said he (Romney) calls it that. That’s true: Romney does label it that. For what it’s worth.

Perhaps Romney worded it that way because Obama’s right that many mainstream-media fact-checkers judge the general apology-tour claim false. (Hold on GOP, we know you’ve got a response to them. We’ll get there in a second.) That’s the conclusion of both FactCheck.org and Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, for instance.

Now, on to “dismissive,” “derisive,” and “dictat[ing] to.”

Obama did indeed tour Middle East nations in 2009. But the “dismissive and derisive” reference actually comes from a speech he made in Strasbourg, France, in April 2009.

Here’s the full reference of Obama’s words:

“In America, there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world,” Obama said. “Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times when America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.

“But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious,” Obama continued. “Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what’s bad.”

Is this an apology? He didn’t say anything near “apologize.” America has indeed shown arrogance at times in international affairs; so has pretty much every other developed nation. In any case, Obama is using that not to self-flagellate but to set up a parallel construction and soften his point that Europe indulges in easy anti-Americanism.

Obama’s “dictate” reference didn’t come from his Middle East tour, either. He made that remark in a speech in April 2009, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

Again, here’s the full reference:

“I know that promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past, and that trust has to be earned over time,” Obama said. “While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership.”

Again, there’s a parallel construction: Obama is using “dictate” to balance his offer of working together, going ahead. Plus, America has dictated terms in Latin America, or tried to. One could start with the US occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and move on from there.

Republicans aren’t themselves apologizing for Romney’s use of “apology tour,” however. Far from it.

“The fact-checkers are wrong .... The variance from reality is so great on this one that you realize how potent is the information bubble in which the president and mainstream media reside,” writes conservative Jennifer Rubin on Tuesday in her Right Turn blog at The Washington Post.

Ms. Rubin judges Obama’s criticisms of George W. Bush’s actions in the war on terror to be implicit apologies, for instance. She also says that even if a nation needs to apologize for past conduct, such an apology shouldn’t be given on foreign soil.

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