Foreign policy is Mitt Romney’s weak point. The debate last night proved that. Barack Obama won handily. Yet defeating an incumbent in a debate on foreign policy is a near impossibility. The experience and information available to a sitting president is invaluable.
All Romney needed to do is appear competent. He did that, but he took a relatively safe approach that was reminiscent of Obama in the first debate. Romney had more fire than Obama did in the first debate so he did not perform nearly as badly.
Obama got in some zingers on Romney, especially the “horses and bayonets” comment that went viral on Twitter. Yet Obama missed a clear chance early in the debate to knock Romney off balance. It would have forced an interesting explanation because I have no idea what Romney was talking about when he said:
“Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.”
Syria is Iran’s only ally but it is not their only route to the sea. It is not even a route to the sea. Iran has its own extensive coastline that borders the Persian Gulf or Arabian Gulf (the name depends on whether one is an Iranian or an Arab).
Iran even presides over the vital Strait of Hormuz, a narrow gap where much of the world’s oil flows from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. Iran has threatened to close the Strait if it is attacked for its nuclear program. Being aware of this is a big deal.
Iran and Syria are not even contiguous. There’s a country, called Iraq, that sits between them. Romney must have heard of that nation.
I waited for Obama’s response to Romney’s statement but it never came. Both candidates have been fast and loose with facts and accusation during the debates, but this was one of the few times that an actual gaffe was made. Unlike most gaffes, which are slips of the tongue or mispronouncements, this one is a bit more disturbing. It is about geography and politics in the Middle East. Understanding both of those is important. I’m not so sure Romney does.
There are only a three logical explanations for this gaffe.
Route to the Mediterranean. Perhaps Romney was referring to access to the Mediterranean, which Syria borders and Iran doesn’t. Of course, that still doesn’t provide a route to the Mediterranean since Iraq is in the way. Iran can get to the Meditteranean by sending its ships through the Suez Canal, not an overland route through two countries.
Iran confused with Iraq. It would be downright scary if Romney has confused Iran with Iraq after a decade of our attention focused on that region. The man is a few votes from being President of the United States, and he isn’t sure where we fought a major war? Besides, Iraq has its own access to the sea by Kuwait.
Nerves. The third possibility is that he was trying to say something else but was so overloaded and nervous with facts and talking points that he blurted out a geographical impossibility. It was clear that Romney’s nerves were on edge this time with his constant wetting of his lips and swallowing.
However, the most disturbing part about Romney’s statement is that it wasn’t the first time he said that. The Guardian writes that he has done it at least five times before. That means his nervousness was not the problem. He actually believes it is true.
This misconception is almost as bad as Gerald Ford in the 1976 debates when he said that Eastern Europe was not under the domination of the Soviet Union. Someone needs to get Romney a map and straighten him out. His ignorance is not just embarrassing. It is dangerous.
Unfortunately, we will never know exactly what Romney was meaning. His advisers have had time to devise a way to deflect any questions that may arise. For Obama, he missed an opportunity to knock Romney off balance early. In the end, this debate has probably persuaded few people on how to vote.