In the Arena

The Third Debate: Obama Wins on Style and Substance

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President Obama won the foreign policy debate, cleanly and decisively, on both style and substance. It was as clear a victory as Mitt Romney’s in the first debate. And Romney lost in similar fashion: he seemed nervous, scattered, unconvincing — and he practiced unilateral disarmament, agreeing with Obama hither and yon … on Iraq (as opposed to two weeks ago), on Afghanistan (as opposed to interviews he’s given this fall), on Libya and Syria and Iran. He didn’t have a single creative or elegantly stated foreign policy thought and, indeed, seemed foolish at times, using the word peace about as often as George McGovern in 1972 (not that McGovern was foolish, but Romney has run so hot and aggressive on foreign policy that he seemed a sudden convert to transcendental meditation or Yoko Ono’s secret consort). Romney did have some strong moments — but they were, once again, on the domestic economy. And Obama didn’t have a single weak or unconvincing moment.

This was not only a strong debate for Obama, it was a clever one. He mentioned Israel three times as our greatest ally in the region before Romney mentioned it once. It was especially convenient that we are conducting joint military exercises with Israel this week, exercises that had been delayed from last spring at Israel’s request (and after Matt Drudge and other weasels blamed Obama for delaying them at the time). I thought Obama’s “zinger” about Romney favoring the “foreign policy of the ’80s, the social policy of the ’50s and the economic policy of the ’20s” seemed transparently precooked, if true. But the President’s strongest moment — also precooked — came when he noted Romney’s frequent assertion that Americans have the smallest Navy since 1916: “We also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama said. “We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.” There were some commentators who thought this was too sarcastic or condescending. I didn’t.

The fact is, Romney’s foreign- and national-security policies have been a steaming heap of nonsense from the start. It was telling that Romney didn’t attempt his line about “throwing Israel under the bus” and Obama “wanting to return to 1967 borders” tonight. He did not do that for a reason: because it is a lie. Obama would have come right back at him, saying, “Governor, you know my position is a return to the 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon land swaps. Why do you insist on misrepresenting me?” (Once again, Obama’s position is not only consistent with that of every American President since Nixon, it is also consistent with the stated position of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.)

I’ll have more to say about this skein of debates — and about our Israel-centric foreign policy — in my print column in a couple of days, but I did want to mention this: I was flipping around the channels, watching the talking heads afterward and saw Chris Wallace — an estimable journalist, in most cases — do something really Fox News reprehensible. He mentioned that a Marine had tweeted that Obama wasn’t in touch because Marines still use bayonets. True enough, but does Wallace really think that bayonets are nearly as important as they were 100 years ago? They certainly haven’t been in my experience in war zones over the past 30 years.

(MORE: Obama, Romney Spar on Mid East Policy in Final Presidential Debate)

And meanwhile, Romney made the sort of mistake that makes Marines cringe: early on in the debate, he called our troops overseas “soldiers.” That drives Marines up a wall. The Army consists of soldiers. The Marine Corps consists of Marines. Both exist under the umbrella of American troops or forces serving overseas. This distinction has been so noxious to the Army that in recent years, it has capitalized its troops — Soldiers — to match the Marine code. I would guess that Fox News may have gotten a few e-mails about that, unmentioned by Fox.

This may seem petty, but it is part of the other-than-reality-based world of RushFoxland — like the alleged Apology Tour that wasn’t. That world, so far as foreign policy is concerned, came crashing down tonight.

MORE: The Election’s Real Foreign Policy Issue: War with Iran