Fact-checking the war comparisons between Obama and Bush
This story originally appeared on the PunditFact website. Poynter.org is republishing with permission.
The irony of President Barack Obama, Nobel Prize winner and putative anti-war candidate, launching extensive airstrikes in Syria, quickly led to comparisons with his predecessor, President George W. Bush.
PunditFact heard two different comparisons in recent days that we thought we were worth exploring.
Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for the New Yorker summed it up in one tweet.
"Countries bombed: Obama 7, Bush 4."
We asked Lizza for his list and he sent us this:
Bush: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia.
Obama: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria.
As we fact-checked Lizza’s statement, we found little reason to challenge the nations he named. If anything, he shortchanged both presidents.
There is no dispute whatsoever about airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Bush launched wars in the first two countries and drone strikes in Pakistan have been in the news for a long time, with or without official acknowledgment. Airstrikes in those places continued under Obama.
Somalia falls largely in the same category as Pakistan. The New York Times, BBC News and other news organizations reported airstrikes as early as 2007 against people linked to the al-Qaida network.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit news service based at City University London, maintains a running list of U.S. military actions in a number of countries, including Somalia and Yemen. The bureau annotates each incident with links to press reports. By its tally, American drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Somalia occurred under both Bush and Obama.
The same pattern holds in Yemen. BBC News and Time magazine reported a CIA-directed drone attack in Yemen in 2002. This would increase Bush’s total to five countries, rather than the four Lizza cited. Lizza said he left Yemen off of Bush’s list because it was a "one-off strike, rather than a more sustained bombing campaign. Probably deserves an asterisk."
The air attacks on Libya that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 under Obama are well documented. In March 2011, the United States and British warships fired over 100 cruise missiles to destroy Libyan air defenses. And, of course, there’s now Syria.
Lizza said that Obama has bombed seven countries to Bush’s four. Depending on your view of Bush’s reported drone strike into Yemen, he may have slightly undercounted Bush’s tally.
But it's hard to fault Lizza for the numbers we use.
On CNN’s State of the Union Sept. 28, political commentator LZ Granderson took the comparison one step further.
Granderson said Obama is losing favor among his base supporters because of his recent foreign policy decisions. In 2008, they were tired of the wars started under Bush and were hoping that a new president would bring them to a close.
"They voted for him because he was supposed to end these wars and stop bombing people," Granderson said. "And when you look at the raw numbers, three times as much Special Forces were used than ‘W.’, twice as many strikes (on) countries that are predominantly Muslim. Those were not the numbers that his staunch progressive base voted for."
Granderson’s claim that there have been "twice as many strikes (on) countries that are predominantly Muslim" is Mostly True.
Granderson used the same tally as Lizza, and in fact, all of those countries are predominantly Muslim.
We found at a Pew report that said each of the seven countries with confirmed airstrikes under Obama are more than 90 percent Muslim, as of 2010.
Afghanistan: 99.8 percent
Iraq: 98.9 percent
Pakistan: 96.4 percent
Somalia: 98.6 percent
Yemen: 99.0 percent
Libya: 96.6 percent
Syria: 92.8 percent
Our only quibble is that Granderson said twice, when he would have been safer saying nearly twice.