11/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Politics of War : Substance Rules Over Spin

Yes, Governor Sarah Palin defied expectations in last night's debate. She was a peppy, prepared, presenter who may fool some people into thinking a vice president is supposed to be a snappy, citizen-politician. And fortunately for the McCain camp, there were no Katie Couric moments. But last night was also a success for the Democrats at a more important level, because when it came to logic and substance Senator Biden punctured both Palin's balloon and the fallacy at the heart of the McCain campaign.

For me, the turning point came on the subject of global warming. Governor Palin was trying to sound reasonable. Alaska is suffering from global warming. And it doesn't matter whether the cause was man-made carbon emissions or cyclical weather patterns. We have to deal with the problem, Palin argued. That's when Joe Biden struck. Wait a minute. If you don't accept that global warming is caused by man, if you don't find the cause of the problem, how are you ever going to come up with a solution before the world faces a catastrophe. Logic matters and facts matter, Biden argued.

And of course, a refusal to face facts is the fatal flaw at the heart of the McCain campaign when it comes to foreign policy. Everyone in the world, it seems, except for the McCain camp understands that the United States has lost admiration and respect around the world. And more important, most voters understand that when it comes to international affairs, the United States is, as Senator Biden put it, in a hole. If you don't know that the U.S. has dug a hole for itself, or don't even understand that we are in a hole, how can America pull itself out? To pervert the old saying, Sarah Palin and John McCain don't even know that we should stop digging.

It's not just global warming. It's our entire Middle East policy. If Senator McCain and Governor Palin are going to be cheerleaders for President Bush's foreign policy, as they have been. Then, we are not going to get the right kind of change. We are going to get more of the same.

Biden talked about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, and the question of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. How can McCain be an effective steward of our national security if he won't face the fact that America's national interests have suffered with respect to all of these countries. This is where Biden's substance trumped Palin's puffery.

Who has been the beneficiary of the Bush foreign policy in the Middle East? Iran, Biden explained. The governments that threatened Tehran in Iraq (Saddam Hussein) and Afghanistan (the Taliban) have been overthrown. Iran is now the most influential player in Iraq, through its proxies in the Shiite-led government. In Lebanon, its ally Hezbollah is now the decisive force in determining the policies of the Lebanese government. Its friends in Hamas, as a result of one of the most counter-productive decisions of the Bush administration, are now the elected leaders of Gaza and control the government and the territory there. In short, America's friends in the Middle East have been weakened while its enemies are stronger. That is the epitome of bad foreign policy.

And as far as the crucial question of Iran's nuclear program is concerned, the Bush policy has left the next president a policy disaster. After five years of giving the government of Iran the silent treatment, Washington's policy has done nothing to slow down Iran's nuclear program. On Bush's watch, Iran has come perilously close to mastering the hardest part of building a nuclear weapon -- gaining the knowledge and engineering capability to make weapons-grade uranium.

These are the facts. But just like in the case of climate change, if you don't understand or accept these facts, then positive change isn't possible. If John McCain doesn't understand where President Bush went wrong, he will never get it right. The Obama-Biden position to deal directly with Iran is not some sideshow issue. For it is only by direct diplomacy that the United States can find out if there is an agreement possible with Iran. And if we can't convince the rest of the world that we have exhausted diplomatic possibilities, then we will never get the support we need to put real economic pressure and sanctions on the Iranian government. Like President Bush, John McCain just doesn't accept this straightforward diplomatic reality.

Senator Biden explained this foreign policy truth last night. He didn't get distracted by Palin's folksy sound bites and phony appeal to Main Street that McCain is an agent of change.

If last night's debate were a popularity contest, maybe you could argue that Sarah Palin did O.K. But with our nation facing two hot wars abroad and an economic melt-down at home, I am confident voters understand that the stakes are serious and that in a dangerous time, substance matters. And when it came to substance, Senator Biden had a good night indeed.