BOCA RATON, Fla. – President Barack Obama sharply challenged Mitt Romney on foreign policy in their final campaign debate Monday night, saying, “Every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong.” The Republican coolly responded, “Attacking me is not an agenda” for dealing with a dangerous world.
Romney took the offensive, too. When Obama said the U.S. and its allies have imposed crippling sanctions on Iran to halt nuclear weapons development, the Republican challenger responded that the U.S. should have done more. He declared repeatedly, “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran.”
Despite the debate’s stated focus on foreign affairs, time after time the rivals turned the discussion back to the slowly recovering U.S. economy, which polls show is the No. 1 issue for most voters.
They found little agreement on that, but the president and his rival found accord on at least one international topic with domestic political overtones – Israel’s security – as they sat at close quarters 15 days before the end of an impossibly close election campaign. Each stressed unequivocal support for Israel when asked how he would respond if the Jewish state were attacked by Iran.
“If Israel is attacked, we have their back,” said Romney – moments after Obama vowed, “I will stand with Israel if Israel is attacked.”
Both also said they oppose direct U.S. military involvement in the efforts to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The debate produced none of the finger-pointing and little of the interrupting that marked the presidential rivals’ debate last week, when Obama needed a comeback after a listless performance in their first meeting on Oct. 3.
But there was no mistaking the urgency. The two men frequently sniped at one another even on issues where they agree, and reprised their campaign-long disagreements over the economy, energy, education and other domestic issues despite ground rules that stipulated the debate cover international affairs.
On the Middle East, Romney said that despite early hopes, the ouster of despotic regimes in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere over the past year has resulted in a “rising tide of chaos.” He said the president has failed to come up with a coherent policy to grapple with change sweeping the Middle East, and he added ominously that an al-Qaida-like group has taken over northern Mali.
Anticipating one of Obama’s most frequent campaign assertions, Romney said of the man seated nearby, “I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden and taking on the leadership of al-Qaida. But we can’t kill our way out of this. … We must have a comprehensive strategy.”
More than a half-hour later, Obama returned to the subject, saying that Romney had once said it wasn’t worth moving heaven and earth to catch one man, a reference to the mastermind behind the 9/11 terror attacks.
He said he had decided it was “worth heaven and earth.”
Obama said he had ended the war in Iraq, was on a path to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan and has vowed to bring justice to the attackers of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last month – an assault that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
He also jabbed at Romney’s having said during the campaign that Russia is the United States’ No. 1 geopolitical foe.
“Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy you seem to want the policies of the 1980s, just like you want to import the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies in the 1920s,” Obama said.
Obama was snippy after Romney, criticizing the administration’s Pentagon budget, said disapprovingly the U.S. Navy has fewer ships than at any time since the end of World War I.
“I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, 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 has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them.”
Romney offered unusual praise for Obama’s war efforts in Afghanistan, declaring the 2010 surge of 33,000 U.S. troops a success and asserting that efforts to train Afghan security forces are on track to enable the U.S. and its allies to put the Afghans fully in charge of security by the end of 2014. He said that U.S. forces should complete their withdrawal on that schedule; previously he has criticized the setting of a specific withdrawal date.
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