President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney tangled over the state of American leadership in the world after four tumultuous years in the final debate of the 2012 campaign on Monday.
Obama said his policies have “decimated” al Qaida’s leadership, crippled Iran’s economy and deposed dictators including Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said economic weakness at home and perceived weakness abroad have reduced the country’s stature during Obama’s term.
Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent of CBS News, moderated the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., the third between Obama and Romney. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., met for their lone debate on Oct. 11.
“In nowhere in the world is America’s influence greater today than it was four years ago,” Romney said.
International sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear program are “crippling their economy,” Obama said.
“Their economy is in shambles,” Obama said. “The reason we did this is because a nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security, and it is a threat to Israel’s national security. We cannot afford to have a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world.”
Obama tried to engage Iran directly when he first took office. When that failed, the administration turned to international sanctions. Romney said he would have imposed those sanctions earlier. He said if elected he would tighten and expand sanctions to those who do business with Iran and would bring charges of genocide against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“I think (Iran’s leaders) saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength,” Romney said. He revived his charge that Obama embarked on “an apology tour” around the world.
“Nothing Gov. Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing,” Obama said.
Obama criticized Romney for saying, several months ago, that Russia is America’s top geopolitical foe. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama said.
“Attacking me is not an agenda,” Romney said. He criticized Obama for comments he made to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which Obama thought were private, that he would have “more flexibility” on issues such as missile defense after the election. “I’m certainly not going to say I’ll give you more flexibility … after the election.”
The candidates sparred over defense spending, with Romney accusing Obama of presiding over a shrinking Navy and aging Air Force.
“Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. Our Air Force is older and smaller than at any time” since its founding, Romney said.
“We also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama shot back. The modern military includes aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, he said. “The question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”
On the war in Afghanistan, Obama said ending the war in Iraq and focusing on Afghanistan — a war that’s in its 11th year — will allow the United States to withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014. Romney said there’s a danger that the Taliban will swoop back in once NATO forces leave.
The campaign has been dominated by domestic economic concerns, and at times, the candidates veered back onto their economic messages. Voters often view foreign policy debates in presidential campaigns as a barometer for leadership qualities.
“The demeanor of the candidates tonight reflected the changing complexion of this race as it comes down to the wire,” said Bruce Haynes, a Washington-based Republican strategist at Purple Strategies. “Romney seemed to have assumed the role of the frontrunner, sticking to his agenda, staying positive and even embracing the president at certain points. Obama went on the attack, looked angry and frustrated at times, and seemed to be the candidate acting out of the greatest sense of urgency.”
Haynes’ Democratic counterpart at Purple Strategies, Steve McMahon, said Obama’s immersion in foreign policy details was evident.
“The president reads a national security briefing every day, and tonight it showed,” McMahon said. “You could tell that worked against Romney in the details in this debate.”
Former two-term Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral of Delaware County, felt the debate was close to a tie, but with Romney coming across as having presidential timber.
“I think that Romney spoke well about his past achievements as governor of Massachusetts and appeared to lay out a more compelling argument for the future in the first half of the debate,” he said.
“The president started to get back on track towards the end of the debate on his past accomplishments,” Sestak said.
Sestak said he will be voting for Obama, but “I think Gov. Romney was a good governor and has a strong potential to be a good president,” he said.
The campaigns will renew their battle for swing-state voters on Tuesday, with Obama campaigning in Delray, Fla., and Dayton, Ohio, while Romney rallies supporters in Colorado.