WASHINGTON — As President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry wrestled over foreign policy in their first debate Thursday, some facts were oversimplified, others were exaggerated and still others dropped from sight entirely.
No mistake was so glaring that it was likely to do lasting damage to a candidate. But as they grappled on the familiar territory of the Iraq war and related subjects, the combatants shaded the truth again and again in ways that echoed what they have said on the campaign trail.
Bush, for example, eager to blunt Kerry's charges that he charged unilaterally into the Iraq war, contended that his administration had "used diplomacy every chance we get." In fact, though Bush sought United Nations approval for the war in early 2003, it had become clear that the administration's patience for diplomacy was nearly exhausted. The administration rebuffed proposals from other countries that would have extended international weapons inspections and delayed the March 2003 invasion.
Kerry, on the other hand, seeking to portray the war as reckless, asserted flatly that Bush had "no plan" for the aftermath. In fact, the administration had elaborate sets of plans for handling the various crises that officials anticipated, such as oil-well fires and huge refugee flows. The problem they later confronted was that the assumptions behind the plans proved wildly wrong.
Bush tinted some of the war's developments with optimism. In seeking to show international support for the U.S. effort, the president cited an upcoming meeting this month in Tokyo to discuss $14 billion in aid pledged to the rebuilding effort. He failed to mention that many donors had yet to fulfill their pledges 12 months after they made a commitment to do so.
Bush also sought to portray efforts underway as projects completed. Outlining his administration's progress against nuclear proliferation, he asserted that the network of Pakistani physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan had been "busted" and "brought to justice."
However, Khan himself was pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in February, and of 11 staff members at the top-secret Khan Research Laboratories near Islamabad originally believed to be involved in the nuclear trafficking, none has been charged after lengthy detentions and interrogations. International investigations are still underway.
Similarly, to show that he has made progress in the war on terrorism, Bush said, "75% of known Al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice."
The CIA has attempted to quantify the success of U.S. efforts against the terrorist group and has tallied the number of its "known leaders" at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks who have been killed or captured. The agency used a rough estimate of two-thirds earlier this year, and increased its estimate to three-quarters this summer. But many terrorism experts say the estimate is misleading because Al Qaeda is a decentralized network of groups and new leaders often spring up after others die.
On several points, Bush and Kerry misrepresented each other's position. During discussion of his planned missile defense system, Bush said that "my opponent is opposed to the missile defenses."
Kerry is not opposed to the missile defense program, although, on the campaign trail, he has advocated reduced spending for the program.
Kerry may have been exaggerating when he said the president hadn't put "one nickel" into protecting subways from the threat of a terrorist attack. But he was on the right track when he suggested that spending on mass-transit security lagged far behind the investment in protecting airports.
Although the aviation security budget is about $5 billion a year, the government has spent just $115 million on transit security since the Sept. 11 attacks. Bipartisan legislation in the Senate calls for a $5.2-billion investment.
Separately, Amtrak has received more than $70 million to fund security and safety improvements in the tunnels serving New York's Penn Station, used by more than 300,000 commuters each day.
Kerry said the cost of the war was $200 billion, money "that could have been used for healthcare, for schools, for construction, for prescription drugs, and it's in Iraq."
He exaggerated somewhat how much money has been spent in Iraq so far. Congress has appropriated funding for operations there and in Afghanistan in three installments that total about $180 billion. Not all of that has been spent. However, no one doubts that the bill will eventually exceed $200 billion.
Kerry's suggestion that funding for the war was taken from domestic priorities was a bit of a stretch. Even while funding the war, Congress recently approved a major expansion of Medicare to include prescription drug benefits and has continued to increase spending for education and highway construction.
Bush said there were currently a "hundred thousand troops trained" -- close to the 96,681 trained police and military forces cited in a Sept. 22 statement by the Defense Department.