In the third and final presidential debate, there were three clear losers: China, Iran, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney voiced their disapproval about each of them in a rambling 90-minute discussion. Even though both portrayed China as an economic adversary, Iran as a nuclear threat that must be stopped, and Assad as a cruel despot who will be overthrown, their pitch to the American people was simple: Are you safer now than you were four years ago?
The former Massachusetts governor claimed that America no longer seemed to project as much strength abroad. Terrorists recently killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in a planned attack, while the nation copes with a weak economy that damages its credibility overseas.
“I see Iran four years closer to a bomb. I see the Middle East with a rising tide of violence, chaos, tumult,” Romney said during the showdown in Boca Raton, Fla. “I don’t see our influence growing around the world. I see our influence receding, in part because of the failure of the president to deal with our economic challenges at home, in part because of our withdrawal from our commitment to our military.”
Obama countered that he had made the hard choices, such as invading Pakistani airspace and moving “heaven and earth to get” Osama bin Laden, an approach that Romney had criticized back in 2008. The president recounted a conversation with the daughter of a victim of the 9/11 attack after a team of Navy SEALs took out bin Laden—its mastermind—in 2011.
“When we do things like that, when we bring those who have harmed us to justice, that sends a message to the world, and it tells Payton that we did not forget her father,” Obama said. “I make that point because that’s the kind of clarity of leadership — and those decisions are not always popular. Those decisions generally are not poll-tested. … But what the American people understand is, is that I look at what we need to get done to keep the American people safe and to move our interests forward, and I make those decisions.
Both repeatedly veered away from foreign policy to talk about the issue that will likely motivate voters in the Nov. 6 election—the economy. Romney reiterated that the country was still crawling to recovery, while Obama stressed the need to turn the focus that has been placed on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to nation-building at home. Teachers unions and the government rescue of the auto industry both surfaced in the debate, leading the moderator, CBS News’ Bob Schieffer, to interrupt, “Let me get back to foreign policy.”
Romney had struck a hawkish tone on the campaign trail when talking about the bloodshed in Syria and Iran’s relentless pursuit of atomic weapons, yet emphasized at the debate that he would not lead the country into a premature war and would withdraw troops from Afghanistan as planned by 2014.
“We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict,” Romney said. “So the right course for us is working through our partners.”
“He doesn’t have different ideas,” the president shot back. “That’s the leadership we’ve shown; that’s the leadership we’ll continue to show.”
In a post-debate poll, CNN reported that 48 percent of debate watchers deemed Obama the winner, while 40 percent gave the win to Romney. CBS News in a poll of 521 undecided voters scored Obama with a victory by a 53 percent to 23 percent margin. National surveys indicate that the candidates are neck-and-neck in the final weeks of the campaign. The debate did not move the needle for voters according to the instant polls, but the next few days will tell the story as both candidates campaign in battleground states--especially Ohio.
The Republican—contrary to his assertive foreign policy rhetoric—took a conciliatory tone during the debate, at times describing the situations abroad in the explanatory manner of a Wikipedia entry. Obama relentlessly criticized Romney for his past statements, displaying the same kind of aggression that was missing from their first Oct. 3 debate and boiled over in their second Oct. 16 match-up.
The president repeatedly returned to his campaign’s theme that Romney is a flip-flopper on foreign policy as well as domestic issues, tearing into him over the exit of U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
“You said just a few weeks ago that we need more troops in Iraq,” the president said. “What we need to do with respect with the Middle East is strong steady leadership, not leadership that’s been all over the map.”
Romney offered in defense variations on this line, “Attacking me is not an agenda.”
Perhaps their critical difference on foreign policy involved military spending. Romney favors pegging it to wartime levels of four percent of gross domestic product—a minimum of $640 billion in today’s money. Obama prefers whittling that down to three percent of GDP.
The U.S. Navy, Romney noted, has its smallest fleet since 1917. “We’ve got to strengthen our military long-term,” he said. “We don’t know what the world will throw at us.”
Obama quickly noted that America now had aircraft carriers, unlike during World War I when flight was still in its most primitive stages and the first liquid-fueled rocket was still a decade away.
“You haven’t spent enough time looking at how our military really works,” Obama said. “Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets. That’s because the nature of our military has changed.”
The only area of the world that came in for sustained attention outside the Middle East was China, where Romney repeated his vow to declare China a currency violator and crack down on trade violations. “They’re stealing our intellectual property, our patents, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods,” he said. “They have to understand . . . you’ve got to play by the rules.”
Obama, after pointing out that his administration has filed more trade complaints against China than were filed during eight years under George W. Bush, again sought to land punches pulled from his campaign commercials. “You are familiar with companies that ship jobs overseas because you invested in companies that shipped jobs overseas,” the president said.
He then immediately pivoted to attacking Romney for failing to support the auto bailout, which put Romney on the defensive. The Republican advocated a bankruptcy for companies like General Motors and Chrysler in 2008 with some government assistance. At first, he stressed in crucial manufacturing states like Ohio that Obama essentially implemented his plan, only to later blast in campaign videos the government-initiated restructuring that is estimated to have saved more than a million jobs but led to plant and dealership closings.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Romney said. “I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry. My plan to get the industry on its feet was not to write checks. President Bush started that . . . They needed to go through bankruptcy,” he said.
Amazingly, the debate never delved into the economic woes of Europe. Nor did either candidate or the moderator pay much attention to any country south of the equator. Latin America received a blink and you missed it cameo, while sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia including what will soon be the world’s most populous nation – India – were never even mentioned.
Obama preferred to have the attention on the home front.
“I want to make sure we’ve got the best education system in the world and we’re retraining our workers for the jobs of tomorrow,” he said in his closing remarks. “ After a decade of war, I think we all recognize we’ve got to do some nation building here at home, rebuilding our roads, our bridges and especially caring for our veterans who’ve sacrificed so much for our freedom.”
Romney closed with an eye toward domestic issues—citing Greece as a cautionary tale rather than an international catastrophe worthy of voters’ attentions. He again stressed a sense of bi-partisanship that was missing from many of his pronouncements during the Republican primary.
“Washington is broken,” Romney said. “I know what it takes to get this country back. And we’ll work with good Democrats and good Republicans to do that.”