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Politifact’s Pants on Fire

I wouldn’t normally respond to a piece by PolitiFact, but because I’m quoted as a source for a recent piece on Mitt Romney, I think it’s worthwhile offering a bit of context. On Tuesday, I got the same email Tom Busciano received from Louis Jacobson at PolitiFact, asking my take on Romney’s recent debate claim the U.S. Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917, and the U.S. Air Force is smaller and older than it’s been since 1947. What struck me about Jacobson’s message was it asked if Romney’s statement was “technically true” and “what context does this ignore,” which carried the clear implication – as I warned Jacobson in my reply – that he’d already decided what he was going to write.

Jacobson responded that he “didn’t mean to look biased; I was simply trying to elicit critical thinking.” Sadly, my trust was misplaced. Jacobson’s piece is critical indeed: full of overheated rhetoric, uncomprehending of basic points, and carrying a “pants on fire” rating. Jacobson sums up Romney’s contention as being: “The U.S. military has been seriously weakened compared to what it was 50 and 100 years ago.” Since the Truman Doctrine of 1947 is as good a marker as any of the moment when the U.S. assumed the global security responsibilities that formerly belonged to Britain, the fact that our Air Force is smaller and older than it has been at any point since that date might give immediately give cause for concern.

But the obvious point of Romney’s statement was not that the U.S. military of today would lose a war to the U.S. military of 1917 or 1947. It was that the margin of U.S. “military superiority” – i.e., its relative strength versus potential and actual adversaries – is at risk if defense spending declines, as President Obama plans for it to do. The question is not whether the U.S.’s “military posture is in any way similar to that of its predecessors in 1917 or 1947”: it is whether the U.S.’s margin of superiority over other actors, taking contextual factors into account, is better or worse than it was in previous eras.

Misunderstanding what the phrase “military superiority” means, Jacobson spends half his piece comparing the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force and Navy today to their capabilities of decades ago. Well, sure, I’d rather have an F-35 than a P-51 Mustang. But unfortunately, we don’t get to fight our 50-year-old selves. And even more unfortunately, our adversaries now don’t have ME-109s or MiG-17s. Some of them have MiG-35s, or, soon, J-20s.

He goes on to claim Romney “appears to be throwing blame on Obama, which is problematic because military buildups and draw-down these days take years to run their course.” True: we have today’s military because of decisions made during the past 20 years (which does include three years of Obama, by the way). But Romney’s statement is forward-looking: he points out the president is cutting the defense budget, which he opposes because he’s concerned at the size and age of our forces as they stand, and a smaller defense budget will only make this problem worse. In other words, in 20 years we’ll have the military Obama’s buying now, and that’s not good.

I’m not sure if this piece was written out of malice, or if it is simply a complete misfire. I’ve worked with PolitiFact before, and while I’ve not agreed with previous pieces, they were at least defensible. What it comes down to is that Romney’s claim is factually correct, but assessing the context would require a book-length analysis that would be subject to a wide amount of legitimate dispute over many factors, some of them fundamentally unknowable. Even if applied earnestly and knowledgeably, fact-checking is terrible at assessing this kind of context, precisely because the facts are not known: it’s why Churchill described strategic leadership as an art, not a science. Fact-checkers would have a better sense of their potential contributions and limits if they kept Churchill’s wisdom in mind, and recognized that checking facts is not the same thing as criticizing art.