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Obama’s Two Most Revealing Moments in Last Night’s Debate

Twice during the debate President Obama said something that made me think, “I believe him, though I am aware of the arguments in favor of skepticism.” The first time was in regard to Iran and the bomb. Mitt Romney was right to observe that, in 2009, at the time of the fraudulent Iranian elections, Obama miserably failed to stand up adequately for the democratic protesters. Even at the debate Obama declined to speak up for an altogether different and better Iran, post-theocratic. Obama’s democratic idealism has always seemed less than visceral. 

But when he said last night that he was not going to permit Iran to develop a bomb—well, it might have been his cheekbones, or a toughening of his vocal cords, but I concluded that Obama was staking, as it were, his immortal soul on the matter. I believed. Exactly what did I believe? I believed that if neither economic sanctions nor any other kind of pressure succeeded in convincing the mullahs to abandon their nuclear military program, Obama would launch some kind of war. I also believed that Obama knows how dreadful such a development might turn out to be, which is to say, I believed that Obama recognizes a third possibility between cowboy-ism and moral flippancy.

The second matter on which I believed him had to do with Israel. Obama said, in response to Romney’s jibe about having failed to make a presidential visit to Israel, that he had, in fact, visited on an earlier occasion. He had toured Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum outside Jerusalem—“to remind myself of the nature of evil.” And he had visited the much-attacked Israeli city of Sderot, where he had reflected on his own children. I am aware that Obama has said these things before, and what has been said twice can always be dismissed as a rhetorical trick. But I believed. The vibrations convinced me. Ultimately one has to make judgments on this sort of basis. 

It annoys me that Obama keeps boasting about having ended the war in Iraq, when all he means is that he failed to push hard enough to secure a "status of forces" agreement with the Iraqi government. And then he pulled out the American military—though if he had, in fact, secured an agreement, the American military people could have retained a base or two in Iraq and, if the bases were big enough, might have lent a helping hand to the Iraqis. Not war, but post-bellum policing. There are people in our own military who seem to think so, anyway.

By now everyone ought to be able to see that America has ended up a lot better off with an Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, instead of by Saddam Hussein. Malaki may be a dismaying figure, but he is not a sponsor of the kind of terrorism that can only thrive with state support. The cost in pulling out our last remaining troops from Iraq is being paid by the poor suffering Iraqis, who, without our help, are scarcely able to defend themselves against their local terrorists. But the cost of withdrawal is not being paid by ourselves. We overthrew Saddam, and we are enjoying the benefit. We are no longer confronted with a powerful and violently anti-American government in Baghdad. And we have departed. But this is nothing to boast about.

Romney invoked the word “humanitarian” to describe the nature of the crisis in Syria. He was right. Syria has not been Obama’s finest hour, especially given that, by now, the hour has lasted a year. There is reason to suppose that Europe would support an Obama administration that showed a little more verve on behalf of the Syrian people and the non-insane elements among the Syrian rebels. But Romney’s invocation of the humanitarian cause seemed to me a debater’s point. The point was agreeable, but was Romney the debater? He has given us no reason to suppose that humanitarian impulses figure largely among his motives.

I turned off the TV feeling that, on the matter of the Iranian mullahs and their prospective bomb, and on the matter of recognizing the absolute evil that Yad Vashem has put on display, I understood Obama, the man. These were large questions, and my feeling of reassurance was likewise—well, if not large, at least something I could identify. It was not a matter of Obama’s aggressiveness against Romney, which the TV commentators celebrated. It was a matter of the president’s sincerity, which the commentators never mentioned.

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