Whoppers of the Union

Fact-checking a decade's worth of the president's big speech.

As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to deliver his fourth State of the Union address this Tuesday, it's worth commemorating the 10th anniversary of George W. Bush's infamous 2003 SOTU. In that address, Bush's "16 words" about Saddam Hussein pursuing Nigerien yellowcake led to ex post critical op-eds, which led to the politically motivated leaks, which led to the outing of covert operatives, which led to the prosecution of White House officials, which led to controversial presidential commutations, which ultimately led to book deals, Vanity Fair spreads, and movies starring Naomi Watts.

Nothing else said in the past decade's worth of State of the Union addresses has led to anything so extreme (or, insofar as Naomi Watts is concerned, as lovely), but it got us to thinking. It would be hard to prove that Bush knew he was distorting the truth when he uttered those 16 words. What other foreign or economic policy lulus did Bush and Obama say in their previous SOTUs? After a quick review, I was able to find at least two major whoppers in every State of the Union address in the past decade. Let's go to the archives!

The 2004 State of the Union address:

1.     "The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror."

According to the Freedom House's 2013 Index, Afghanistan is rated as "not free." And according to Vision of Humanity's Global Terrorism Index, in 2012 Afghanistan ranked 3rd out of 158 countries in terrorist attacks. If Afghanistan is fighting terror, it's not doing a very good job of it.

2.     "Already, the Kay report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations. Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day."

Bush was citing the Iraq Survey Group's October 2003 interim report. In the end, David Kay resigned from the Iraq Study Group after concluding that "we were almost all wrong" in Senate testimony. The Duelfer Report concluded that Saddam Hussein had in fact abandoned all WMD programs after the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Oops.

The 2005 State of the Union address:

1.     "It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists."

Eight years later, maybe -- maybe -- Bush's sense of urgency will be realized.

2.     "The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are now showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure."

At the insistence of the Bush administration -- and despite warnings from both Israeli and moderate Palestinian politicians -- elections were held in the Palestinian territories a year later, leading to a surprise victory for Hamas. Bush's freedom agenda wasn't vocalized so much after that.

The 2006 State of the Union address:

1.     "We're on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory.... I am confident in our plan for victory. I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people. I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military. Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning.

By December of 2006, the Iraq Study Group determined that the military situation on the ground in Iraq was "grave and deteriorating."The worsening situation on the ground helped trigger a landslide Democratic victory in November 2006, and eventually required a radical rethinking of counterinsurgency operations, leading to the "surge." Indeed, in his 2007 SOTU, Bush would detail at quite some length the worsening situation in Iraq.

2.     "The Palestinian people have voted in elections. And now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace."

Seven years later, it appears Hamas is perfectly comfortable not recognizing Israel, conducting acts of terrorism, and rejecting any negotiations for a lasting peace.

The 2007 State of the Union address:

1.     "In the coming weeks, I will submit a budget that eliminates the federal deficit within the next five years. I ask you to make the same commitment. Together, we can restrain the spending appetite of the federal government and we can balance the federal budget."

You can insert your own fiscal joke here.

2.     "Iraq's leaders have committed themselves to a series of benchmarks to achieve reconciliation: to share oil revenues among all of Iraq's citizens, to put the wealth of Iraq into the rebuilding of Iraq, to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's civic life, to hold local elections and to take responsibility for security in every Iraqi province."

It's worth remembering that the primary purpose of the surge was to give Iraqi politicians the space to achieve political reconciliation. While U.S. forces managed to achieve significant military successes, it would be hard to argue that Iraq's leaders achieved any of these commitments.

The 2008 State of the Union address:

1.     Next week, I'll send you a budget that terminates or substantially reduces 151 wasteful or bloated programs, totaling more than $18 billion. The budget that I will submit will keep America on track for a surplus in 2012."

In the fiscal year 2012, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the United States had a federal budget deficit of more than$1 trillion.

2.     "We're working for a successful Doha Round of trade talks, and we must complete a good agreement this year."

The Doha Round is as dead as a doornail, and Bush's last trade representative recommended proclaiming it as such three years after this SOTU.

The 2009 State of the Union Address:

1.     "I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet."

AIG, which received more than $180 billion in government money, nevertheless paid out substantial bonuses to top corporate officials later in 2009.

2.     "To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend --because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay..."

Gitmo remains open to this day.

The 2010 State of the Union address:

1.     "Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it's time to try something new."

Again, insert your own joke here.

2.     "We have gone from a bystander to a leader in the fight against climate change."

Three years later, even supporters of the Obama administration acknowledge that not much was accomplished in the first term on climate-change policy.

The 2011 State of the Union address:

1.     "Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

Google Trends suggest that if there was a "Sputnik moment," it came and passed very quickly.

2.     "In the coming year, we'll also work to rebuild people's faith in the institution of government."

Gallup data suggests that President Obama did not succeed in that task in 2011. To be fair, Congress certainly helped.

The 2012 State of the Union address:

1.     "[In the Middle East] we will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings --men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty. And we will safeguard America's own security against those who threaten our citizens, our friends, and our interests."

One would be hard-pressed to describe the administration's Syria policy as standing "against violence and intimidation," or its performance in Benghazi as protecting "America's own security against those who threaten our citizens."

2.     "[A]nyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn't know what they're talking about."

The Pew Global Attitudes project suggests that either a lot of the world doesn't know what they're talking about, or that President Obama was wrong.

Let's see what he's got cooked up for us this year....

Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images


Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

Reincarnation in Exile
Tim McGirk • The Believer

Growing up in the modern world as the reincarnation of a famous Tibetan lama.

Along with Osel, there are over a thousand other monks and laymen who are revered as the incarnations of past teachers. Among them, the Dalai Lama stands supreme. Below him are several dozen high lamas, also rinpoches, who are great teachers and whose spirituality is unquestioned. In old Tibet, the rinpoches were powerful men possessing monasteries, lands, treasure, and thousands of followers. Like any system of dynastic succession, this one was vulnerable to political intrigue, manipulation, and mistake; apparently, there's no easy science for finding one's reincarnation. The searchers rely on visions, divinations, and clues left behind by the old rinpoche, and sometimes things go awry. Nor do these rinpoches always behave as expected: the sixth Dalai Lama loved wine, carousing, and singing songs to his favorite Lhasa courtesans. He came to a bad end.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Image

Animal Spirits
Stephen T. Asma • Aeon

Observing mammals in Africa reveals insights into human intelligence. 

Time on the Serengeti makes you think a lot about the inner life of animals. While the wildebeest is screaming, is it feeling fear like we do? Is it relieved when it's suddenly free? Is the croc filled with regret? It might seem self-evident to the sentimental pet owner that our fellow creatures have emotions, but science has long been loath to admit it. Yet Jaak Panksepp, professor of veterinary anatomy at Washington State University College, says this is one area where our anthropomorphic tendencies are probably in the right: animals do have complex emotional lives.


Syria's Secular Revolution Lives On
Omar Hossino • Foreign Policy

The movement countering the rise of radical jihadists.

Such scenes, which I saw on my recent trip to war-torn northern Syria, point to the worrying growth of jihadi and Salafi groups -- but these forces are not the only players emerging in the new Syria. The secular and nationalist spirit that initially sparked the Syrian revolution is also still alive and well. Many grassroots activists and religious leaders are working to forge a country that is built on secular principles, against sectarian revenge, and supportive of equal rights for all its citizens. Even some of the sharia courts that have sprung up to administer justice in areas the Syrian government has abandoned contain surprising, nonsectarian trends.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Drone Home
Lev Grossman • Time

How the radical new technology is changing life both at home and abroad.

Having transformed war, drones are getting ready to transform peace. A year ago Obama ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to expedite the process of integrating "unmanned aerial vehicles," as drones are primly referred to within the trade, into civilian airspace. Police departments will use them to study crime scenes. Farmers will use them to watch their fields. Builders will use them to survey construction sites. Hollywood will use them to make movies. Hobbyists will use them just because they feel like it. Drones are an enormously powerful, disruptive technology that rewrites rules wherever it goes. Now the drones are coming home to roost.


If They Build It, Will the Kardashians Come?
Peter Savodnik • New York Times Magazine

In a new economy fueled by an oil boom, some Azerbaijani entrepreneurs are taking a page from Dubai's playbook.

When the whole project is complete, according to Avesta, 800,000 people will live at Khazar Islands, and there will be hotel rooms for another 200,000, totaling nearly half the population of Baku. It will cost about $100 billion, which is more than the gross domestic product of most countries, including Azerbaijan. "It will cost $3 billion just to build Azerbaijan Tower," Ibrahimov said. "Some people may object. I don't care. I will build it alone. I work with my feelings."