10/23/2012 12:35 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

Obama Wins Foreign Policy Debate on ... Ohio?

Monday night's debate, on the 50th anniversary of JFK's announcement of the Cuban Missile Crisis, was all about geopolitics and foreign policy, and Barack Obama won it handily, with Mitt Romney morphing into "me too" mode on issues on which he'd previously bitterly attacked the president. But Obama's ultimate edge may have come on a domestic issue, rescuing the auto industry, which has direct bearing on must-win Ohio.

More about that in a moment.

Geopolitics and foreign policy have been areas of significant strength for Obama and weakness for Romney.

The debate was a key moment for Romney, who has yet to cross the threshold of being a credible potential U.S. president on the world stage after stumbling through his summer international tour.

But Romney, who has repeatedly muffed the issue, as I've been pointing out for nearly six weeks, had another chance to try to score on Obama for the Benghazi disaster.

Even though I think his administration erred badly, Obama had enough to say, especially with regard to rather erroneous intelligence reports of the moment, to cover himself there while counter-punching nicely on his take-down of Osama bin Laden, a policy that Romney notably opposed the last time he ran for president.

So Romney, on the first question of the debate, punted, thereby removing the only true moment of peril for Obama.

The fact is that the world is a messy place in a state of flux. I think voters have a sense of this, and are not anxious to blunder into more dangerously entangled engagements that expensively go nowhere good. Romney might get it finally, too, reversing his position on Afghanistan, on which he'd previously attacked Obama for setting a withdrawal date.

Obama spoke to this by finding his sense of pith, mostly staying out of dry professorial mode. Too bad for Obama that he wasn't like this in Denver, where he turned what could have been a decisive election victory into a dicey proposition.

Romney is trying to make the case that Obama is soft on China -- Obama has an aircraft carrier strike group cruising the South China Sea with top officials of our old enemy Vietnam aboard over the weekend (which Obama did not mention) -- and Russia, which Romney, rather unaccountably, identifies as America's chief adversary in the world.

(You can see the archive of my articles dealing with the geopolitical pivot to Asia and the Pacific here.)

The reality is that Obama's Pacific pivot is intended to counter the rise of China -- complete with Navy battle groups moved into the South and East China Seas and trade sanctions -- though of course the administration doesn't put it that way publicly, and Romney has his own business-related problems on China, as Obama pointed out last night.

We did see how much the two differ on Iran's nuclear program and Israel. Not much at all, if the new Romney is to be believed. The Israeli government and security establishment have largely turned away from Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's red-hot rhetoric of preemptive military attacks, which was mirrored over the summer by his old friend and business colleague Romney.

Romney also tried to soften on the Arab Awakening, which he's been no fan of. But he said something very strange on that which indicates he really doesn't know the most crisis-ridden region in the world.

"Syria," he intoned, "is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea."

Say what? Syria simply is not Iran's "route to the sea." First off, Syria and Iran aren't next to one another. Second, Iran has 1,500 miles of coastline along the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, all leading to the sea.

Romney doesn't seem to have looked at a map of Iran, which is shocking considering how many times he's declared that a nuclear Iran would be the world's greatest threat.

Romney wasn't all "me too" clinching Obama last night, claiming again that Obama has dangerously cut the military, complete with a familiar riff on the Navy. The candidate definitely went to the well one time too many on that, saying that the U.S. Navy is weaker than it's been since 1917.

Obama had a devastating riposte, saying that the military has "fewer horses and bayonets" now, too, and in any event, the ships we have are more powerful, including aircraft carriers and nuclear subs.

The claim that Obama is making dangerous cuts from the U.S. Armed Forces is strange. Our spending is greater than that of the next 14 nations in the world combined.

And his claim about the Navy, not to put too fine a point on it, is nonsense. You don't even have to have been in the Navy, or any other branch of service -- Romney was a Mormon missionary in France during the Vietnam War -- to know this.

Actually, contra Romney, there are more ships in the U.S. Navy of today than in the U.S. Navy of 1916. And even more important, the ships we have today are far more capable and powerful. For one thing, there were no aircraft carriers in 1916, which Romney should know. For another, he equates little gunboats and patrol boats with modern warships like Aegis cruisers and nuclear submarines.

But the deepest problem for Romney last night may have come on a more domestic issue. Seeking to counter Obama's attack that he opposed the auto industry rescue, Romney declared: "I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry. My plan to get the industry on its feet when it was in real trouble was not to start writing checks. I said they need -- these companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy. And in that process, they can get government help and government guarantees."

Obama had a lethal counter: "You keep on trying to airbrush history here. You were very clear that you would not provide government assistance to the U.S. auto companies, even if they went through bankruptcy. You said that they could get it in the private marketplace. That wasn't true."

Romney clearly wanted to get through the final debate without getting embarrassed on topics he knows relatively little about, despite having been running for president for the past seven years.

Ironic, then, that he may have skewered himself on something he does know about.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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