The third debate between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney on Monday night focused on international relations.
Returning to Boca Raton, Fla., the scene of the famous meeting Mr. Romney held with rich campaign donors at which he put 47 percent of Americans in the category of government dependents with whom he didn't have to concern himself, the Republican candidate took a pretty thorough drubbing from Mr. Obama.
Mr. Romney showed himself to be geographically challenged, apparently under the impression that the relationship between Syria and Iran was based on Syria being Iran's route to the sea. Unless someone moved them while Mr. Romney wasn't looking, neither is landlocked and they don't have a common border. Syria is on the Mediterranean and Iran has a long coast on the Arabian Sea, the Sea of Oman and the Persian Gulf. Location matters a lot in the Middle East.
Mr. Obama also stole a march on Mr. Romney on the subject of Israel. Mr. Romney, whose candidacy apparently is favored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also up for election at the moment, had hoped to make capital on the lack of personal chemistry between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu. But Mr. Obama beat him to the punch.
Early in the debate, Mr. Obama underlined the importance he attaches to assuring Israel's security, returning to the point when discussing Syria and when saying Egypt must respect its peace treaty with Israel. Later, Mr. Obama took a dig at Mr. Romney, noting that he, Mr. Obama, as a candidate in 2008 had visited Israel, including the Holocaust memorial, while Mr. Romney, visiting Israel as a candidate this year, had been accompanied by campaign fund-raisers. Among his contributions to Israel's security, Mr. Obama noted, was the putting in place of the Iron Dome missile defense system to protect the Jewish state.
One national security issue, the defense budget, spilled over into the economy, which both candidates consider the central issue for voters. Mr. Romney sought to score points by claiming a U.S. Navy ship deficit compared to previous times in American history, and he promised to build more vessels. Mr. Obama noted that warfare has changed and that American forces now have fewer horses and bayonets, too.
Apart from the appropriateness or lack thereof of the president's clever quip, the real point is that, particularly with the end of the Iraq war and the impending close of the Afghanistan war, face to face with $1-trillion-plus annual budget deficits, spiraling U.S. debt and trillions of dollars owed to China, Japan and the Arab oil states, the United States must cut spending to build a healthy economy. The Department of Defense is going to have to share in those cuts. It is a dangerous illusion for Mr. Romney to pretend that he could increase U.S. defense spending and make overall spending cuts by taking all the money from domestic programs.
Mr. Romney also promised to "create 12 million new jobs." The American people want to hear that, and perhaps even may vote on that basis, but he has still not explained how he would do it or build many more Navy ships while cutting the deficit. Mr. Obama was right to point out that his Republican opponent's arithmetic is astonishingly weak for the successful businessman he claims to be.
There were major gaps in the subjects considered in Monday's debate. One was climate change, global warming. Given the sometimes nasty differences on climate-change policy that prevail in America, neither candidate could see advantage in tackling them during the debate. On the other hand, each candidate was free to explain his foreign affairs agenda and, with all the caterwauling in the campaign about "our children's future," it is hard to see how climate change got left out. So did stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, except with respect to Iran.
Neither candidate mentioned the long-delayed Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, the absence of which keeps America away from the international table in discussions of how to exploit undersea energy and mineral resources and new sea passages opening in the Arctic as the ice there melts.
Mr. Romney chose instead to describe the situation in northern Mali as a threat to American interests -- twice. There are allegedly some Islamic militants there, which makes it a kind of poster boy in scare rhetoric at the moment. But the area is landlocked desert. Strategically speaking, it is a dagger pointed at the heart of Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Some African states are trying to get the United States to pay for their troops to intervene there. It is difficult to imagine why Mr. Romney has picked up that cause to advocate.
All in all, given that Mr. Obama is coming off nearly four years as president and Mr. Romney's previous experience in foreign affairs is outsourcing jobs to China and stashing cash in the Cayman Islands, it should not be astonishing that Mr. Obama reduced him to moments of near-babbling in Monday's debate. It is also the case that Mr. Romney's foreign affairs advisers are a frighteningly weak, inexperienced group, on the whole.
It is hard to imagine that anyone who considers America's international role as critical to the future well-being of the country would vote for Mr. Romney.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).