US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney jousted over foreign policy Monday evening during their final debate, with Obama portraying his opponent as unprepared for the rigors of geopolitics and Romney accusing the president of presiding over waning American influence on the international stage.
Obama, who engaged his opponent aggressively on virtually every question, repeatedly depicted Romney as a proponent of reckless and regressive policies on issues such as the Middle East and US-Russian relations.
Obama accused the former Massachusetts governor of a counterproductive, Cold War–style worldview when it comes to US ties with Russia, which Romney has called America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
“The 1980s are now calling and asking for their foreign policy back,” Obama quipped.
Romney, meanwhile, stood by his position on Russia, saying Moscow continues “to battle us in the UN time and time again.”
He also referenced Obama’s comment in March to then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” in bilateral ties after the November 6 election. Romney added that he would take a hard line in dealing with Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin.
“I have clear eyes on this,” Romney said. “I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin, and I’m certainly not going to say to him, ‘I’ll give you more flexibility after the election.’ After the election he’ll get more backbone.”
While Monday’s debate in Boca Raton, Florida, was to focus exclusively on foreign policy, the candidates also clashed over domestic issues covered in their previous two debates, including the economy, unemployment, and education.
The event drifted so deeply into domestic territory that at one point during a discussion of America’s role in the world, Romney ended up boasting about Massachusetts grade-schoolers’ outstanding English scores during his time as governor of the state.
But the candidates did devote a long stretch of the debate to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and America’s relations with Israel.
Romney accused the president of a lack of resoluteness in his support for an Israel that emboldens hostile nations surrounding America’s closest ally in the region.
Romney described Obama’s trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iraq shortly after his election as an “apology tour” and criticized him for not making a stopover in Israel.
Obama, meanwhile, said US-Israeli cooperation on military and intelligence issues has never been closer and that his trip to Israel during his 2008 presidential campaign gave him a deep perspective on the two countries’ special relationship.
The candidates’ positions on Iran ultimately looked very close during the debate.
Romney said he favors the current economic sanctions in place against Tehran but would like to see them ratcheted up to target Iran’s oil exports.
Obama, meanwhile, suggested Romney had spoken rashly during his campaign by talking “as if we should take premature military action” against Iran.
“I think that would be a mistake, because when I’ve sent young men and women into harm’s way, I always understand that that is the last resort, not the first resort,” Obama said.
It was one of several occasions during the debate in which Obama sought to portray himself as an experienced, capable steward of the US military.
After Romney accused the president of targeting military funding for cuts—noting that the US Navy is “smaller now than at any time since 1917”—Obama said his opponent “maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works.”
“We also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed,” Obama responded. “We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
The zinger, one of several offered up by Obama on the evening, was emblematic of the way domestic policy—like budget considerations—weaved its way through discussions of American power during the debate.
“I don’t see our influence growing around the world,” Romney said at one point during the contest. “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.”
Romney even enlisted Iran’s leadership to underscore his criticisms of Obama’s economic policies.
“When the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says our debt makes us not a strong country, that’s a frightening thing,” Romney said.