At the foreign policy debate, President Obama thought he was putting something over on Mitt Romney when he acted as if the Republican was an imbecile for suggesting that the rapid decline in U.S. Naval strength was anything but a good idea:

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

That was quite a zinger. In one fell swoop, he portrayed the Republican as ignorant about defense issues and established himself as the competent commander-in-chief. Except for the fact that he was dead wrong and did himself far more political damage than good.

Contrary to the president’s assertion, the creation of aircraft carriers and submarines did not mean that we needed fewer ships. Quite the contrary. Aircraft carriers need just as many if not more supporting vessels than the obsolete battleships that no are no longer under commission. So do subs. The decline in naval strength compromises America’s ability to project power abroad. That is particularly true in places like the Persian Gulf, where President Obama is trying to sound as tough with Iran as Romney.

Even more foolish is the president’s attempt to portray contemporary naval vessels with cavalry horses. That says more about his own lack of understanding of the military than Romney’s. It also may cost him some votes in a state that he still hopes to win: Virginia, home of the largest U.S. Naval base in the country and hotbed of support for a stronger military.

One more point about those horses and bayonets. For all of his contempt for them, it bears remembering that horses played a not insignificant role in the armed forces’ successful fight in Afghanistan, a point that Obama should have remembered. The Army and the Marines operating Afghanistan still use bayonets in close combat.

The more you think about this supposed zinger, the more it sounds as if Obama made a fool of himself, not Romney.

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