Since everyone in the press is giddily proclaiming Obama’s “horses and bayonets” riff as the most memorable statement of the debate, let’s take a closer look at it. This is what the President said, from the Fox News transcript:
First of all, the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen.
The budget that we are talking about is not reducing our military spending. It is maintaining it.
But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works.
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.
And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities. And so when I sit down with the Secretary of the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we determine how are we going to be best able to meet all of our defense needs in a way that also keeps faith with our troops, that also makes sure that our veterans have the kind of support that they need when they come home.
And that is not reflected in the kind of budget that you’re putting forward because it just doesn’t work.
(Emphases mine.) Right of the bat, Obama’s sequestration lies are already coming back to haunt him. He was indeed involved in proposing sequestration, and has aggressively utilized it as leverage to force Republicans to agree to tax increases. His declaration that he will somehow assert dictatorial powers to block the sequestration cuts has rocked official Washington, unleashing an army of Obama campaign mouthpieces to quietly assure everyone that he didn’t really mean it. It was a remarkably wrong-headed gamble on Obama’s part.
Within moments of Obama’s delivery of this obviously prepared line, soldiers and military experts took to Twitter to remind America that our troops do, in fact, continue to use bayonets, and special forces operators in theaters like Afghanistan do still ride horses. That isn’t exactly a “fact check” of Obama’s statement, since he did say we have “fewer horses and bayonets” than in 1916, not that we don’t use them at all. The tactical significance of bayonets, rather than the actual number of blades distributed to troops, is clearly the subject under discussion.
But the point Obama was trying to make is insulting to our armed forces, and displays a deeply troubling over-reliance on technological superiority as a substitute for military strength. Yuval Levin of National Review adroitly responds to the insult:
Even more astonishing, to me, was Obama’s ignorant and gratuitous insult to the U.S. Navy, describing Navy ships as the equivalent of horses and bayonets. It seemed like a prepared line, and it was appalling. Are the hundreds of thousands of sailors bearing arms under our flag (on the president’s orders) defending America’s security around the world tonight merely riders in some quixotic cavalry brigade chasing make-believe Indian chiefs? How exactly does a “pivot to Asia” work without those old fashioned ships? How does a global superpower project force abroad with fewer ships than it had when it wasn’t a global superpower? How does the advent of aircraft carriers make the Navy less rather than more significant? Is the sitting president really this confused about defense strategy? That line seems like a Romney ad in Virginia just waiting to happen.
Indeed, it’s hard to interpret Obama’s most “memorable” debate moment as anything but a concession that Virginia is lost to him, and it’s going to hurt Democrat efforts to take the Senate seat. The President’s condescending attitude didn’t win him any points with anyone except his most rabid supporters. In fact, I’d wager a lot of those focus groups describing Romney as more “presidential” would point to this particular exchange as Exhibit A. It’s remarkable to recall that “likability” was supposed to be one of Obama’s greatest advantages going into this election, but he seems eager to squander what remains of that advantage during the endgame, evidently because he thinks his base still needs some red meat.
And what in the world was Obama thinking by dragging the children’s game “Battleship” into this metaphor? Doesn’t he already have enough trouble with the perception that he’s small, petty, and fixated on childish things? Do they play Battleship at the White House every afternoon, after they finish checking the office supply cabinets to ensure they don’t contain any binders, then settle down to watch Sesame Street?
But the most troubling aspect of Obama’s “horses and bayonets” moment is his blind faith in the substitution of high technology for combat power. Has he learned nothing from America’s long war in Afghanistan, where history’s most sophisticated military force has been stalemated against cave-dwelling terrorists? Politicians love the idea of prosecuting military conflicts with antiseptic remote-control technology that essentially eliminates the risk of American casualties. But in truth, we’re a long way from the fantasy of pushing a button in Washington and instantly making bad guys halfway around the world disappear. It always comes down to ships in the water, submarines beneath them, planes in the sky, and boots on the ground. Superior tech is a great force multiplier, but the force still has to be there.
Wars have often begun because one side incorrectly believed that technology gave it an insurmountable advantage. The technology edge has limited value as a deterrent because aggressors are willing to test it. They don’t really take their hopeless inferiority on faith. And they know that a shriveled military, even when equipped with the finest weapons and training, still leaves America with fewer options, and a reduced ability to deal with simultaneous crises. It’s also harder to ramp up a greatly reduced military to cope with the sudden emergence of a major threat, particularly when the armed forces rely upon incredibly advanced systems which require extensive training to properly employ.
So really, Obama’s “memorable” line was just insulting rhetoric and condescension wrapped around a fairly unremarkable observation that America’s military needs evolve as technology advances… an evolution that Obama seems to harbor some dangerous illusions about. He was really just looking for rhetorical cover to protect his real interest, which he repeatedly described as “nation building at home” – in other words, stripping down the military to fund more ideologically agreeable, and politically useful, social spending.