Obama trades foreign policy attacks with Romney in last debate

Published: Updated:
President Barack Obama accused Republican candidate Mitt Romney of being consistently wrong on foreign affairs as the two presidential rivals squared off in their third and final debate early Tuesday with the race in a dead heat two weeks before Election Day.

Obama criticized Romney’s support for beginning the war in Iraq, for opposing his plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, for inconsistent stances on Afghanistan and for opposing nuclear treaties with Russia. “Every time you've offered an opinion you've been wrong,” Obama said.

Romney launched a sweeping critique of Obama’s policies on the Arab Spring, Syria and Iran, but was careful to come across as moderate, moving away from more conservative positions as he took a commander-in-chief test.

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, The Associated Press reported.

Romney offered a dismal assessment of the president’s strategy, pointing to bloodshed in Syria and in Libya -- where four Americans including the U.S. ambassador were killed last month -- and twice mentioning al-Qaeda gains in Mali.

Obama called the violence in Syria “heartbreaking.”

The debate on foreign affairs came as international issues have taken a higher profile in a race that has been dominated by economic issues.

Points of strength and weakness

Foreign policy is generally seen as Obama’s strength and, in the debate, he highlighted two of his campaign’s main points: that he gave the order leading to the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and fulfilled a promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and wealthy businessman, has little foreign affairs experience.

But Romney has recently been on the offensive on international issues and has trimmed Obama’s advantage in foreign affairs. In the debate, he said Obama sent the wrong signal to Iranian leaders by going on an “apology tour” early in his presidency, while not visiting Israel. “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran,” he said.

Obama called the “apology tour” comment the “biggest whopper” in the campaign. He said he showed his strength in Iran by mobilizing the world to support sanctions.

For the second week in a row, Obama went on the offensive from the opening moments of the debate as he continued to try to bounce back from a lackluster performance in the first debate on Oct. 3. That encounter led to a rise in opinion polls for Romney.

The debate performances have been judged at least as much by the general impressions of the candidates as by their specific proposals. With polls showing few voters ranking foreign affairs among their top concerns, the candidates were vying to leave the impression that they are strong leaders.

Obama jabbed at Romney’s comments 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 to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s,” Obama said.

Biggest threat to the U.S.

Asked by the moderator what was the biggest danger the United States faces, Obama said: “Well, I think it will continue to be terrorist networks -- we have to remain vigilant, as I just said.”

Romney said: “The greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran,” according to AFP.

Both candidates underscored their support for Israel against a threat from 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 sending to U.S. troops to Syria where opposition groups are fighting to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime.

With one last chance for the candidates to appeal to millions of voters watching on television, Obama was the aggressor from the start.

He criticized the Republican for lacking ideas on the Middle East, mocked his calls for more ships in the U.S. military and accused Romney of wanting to bring the United States back to a long-abandoned Cold War stance, according to Reuters.

Obama had a biting response when Romney said he would increase the number of ships built by the U.S. Navy, saying the United States should typically have 300 and only had 285.

Obama was seen as having the advantage going into Mondays’ foreign policy debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. But that also meant that expectations were higher for the president -- a precarious position for a candidate in a tight race.

Both candidates were looking to energize their supporters in the final weeks of the campaign and win over a dwindling number of undecided voters in key states. The election is a state-by-state contest and the outcome in a small number of states that are not predictably Democratic or Republican will determine the winner.

Moving to China

To that end, China has been the focus of much of the foreign policy discussion, with both candidates tying it to the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs -- a big issue in Ohio, an important industrial state. Romney says Obama has failed to stop China from stealing American intellectual property or from keeping its currency artificially low, hurting U.S. businesses. He has pledged to declare Chinese a currency manipulator, which could lead to sanctions.

Obama has highlighted actions he has taken against China before international trade bodies. He accuses Romney of outsourcing U.S. jobs to China when he ran the private equity firm Bain Capital.

But the biggest issue lately has been Libya. Republicans say the Obama administration didn’t provide enough security at the consulate in Benghazi and misled Americans by playing down the likelihood it was a terrorist attack. They say this reflects the failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

So far, though, Libya has been a tough issue for Romney. A statement he issued immediately after the attack, before the death of the ambassador was known, was seen as ill-timed and opportunistic. And his attempt to confront Obama on Libya in the second debate backfired when the moderator supported Obama's claim that the president had called the killings an act of terror the day after the attacks. Obama's heated rejoinder calling Romney’s comments offensive was one of the most widely played excerpts from the debate.

The debate was moderated by veteran newsman Bob Schieffer of CBS News.

The rivals are neck-and-neck in national polls after Romney surged following his first debate win in early October and started chipping away at Obama's foundation in the swing states that will decide the election.

Foreign policy is unlikely to decide who wins on Nov. 6, with the sluggish economy driving the election, but Romney is under pressure to show basic competence following a string of blunders.

New polls released Monday had the race a cliffhanger with two weeks to go.

CBS News and ABC News had Obama up by two and one points in the national race, but a Politico/GWU/Battleground poll showed Romney leading by two points.

While national polls offer a snapshot of momentum in the race, the nine or so states that could swing to either side will define the outcome.

Obama retains several pathways to the 270 electoral votes needed to win on Nov. 6, but Romney has chiseled away at his advantage with signs that Florida and North Carolina are slipping towards the Republican.

Romney won the first debate after a lethargic performance from Obama, but the president's feisty showing on Long Island, New York last week made the third debate as a tie-breaker of sorts.