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Published: Tuesday, 10/23/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Obama, Romney spar subtly over foreign policy in debate

Face-off is final one before vote

BY JAMES O’TOOLE
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands after the third presidential debate at Lynn University. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands after the third presidential debate at Lynn University.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Pres­i­dent Obama and for­mer Gov. Mitt Rom­ney sparred on of­ten sub­tle dif­fer­ences on for­eign pol­icy Mon­day as they met in the fi­nal de­bate of an ag­o­niz­ingly close elec­tion.

Mr. Obama worked to paint his op­po­nent as an in­ex­pe­ri­enced and shift­ing voice on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs. Par­ry­ing those at­tacks, Mr. Rom­ney of­ten shifted the fo­cus to the do­mes­tic econ­omy, ar­gu­ing that Amer­i­can def­i­cits and lag­ging growth were na­tional se­cu­rity threats, as well as eco­nomic prob­lems.

Mr. Rom­ney re­peat­edly as­serted that the United States was weaker now in the eyes of the world be­cause of al­leged ad­min­is­tra­tion lapses in the Mid­dle East, and par­tic­u­larly in the case of Iran. But he of­fered few spe­cif­ics on how a Rom­ney agenda would dif­fer from the in­cum­bent’s in deal­ing with trou­ble spots such as Iran, Af­ghan­istan, and Paki­stan.

The ri­vals sat next to one an­other at a ta­ble fac­ing mod­er­a­tor Bob Schief­fer, the CBS chief Wash­ing­ton cor­re­spon­dent. While the 90 min­utes in­cluded some sharp ex­changes and in­stances of the can­di­dates talk­ing over one an­other, it lacked the acer­bic tone of their last en­coun­ter in the town-hall for­mat last week at Hof­stra Univer­sity.

The eve­ning started with a ques­tion on Libya, a sub­ject of a raw ex­change of charges be­tween the two cam­paigns over re­cent weeks. But Mr. Rom­ney avoided his pre­vi­ous at­tacks on the ad­min­is­tra­tion for lapses in se­cu­rity at the Ben­ghazi con­sul­ate and sharp ques­tion­ing over ex­pla­na­tions of the mo­tives of the at­tack.

In­stead he of­fered a broader, if less de­tailed, in­dict­ment of he Obama eeeeeeeeeeeeeeAd­min­is­tra­tion pol­i­cies, con­tend­ing his op­po­nent had failed to rise to the chal­lenges of a re­gion in tur­moil.

Cit­ing the dra­matic tran­si­tions of the Arab Spring, Mr. Rom­ney said, “What we’re see­ing is a pretty dra­matic re­ver­sal in the kind of hopes we had for that re­gion.’’

He made an early point of con­grat­u­lat­ing Mr. Obama for the suc­cess­ful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but said, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re go­ing to have to have a very com­pre­hen­sive and ro­bust strat­egy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world re­ject this rad­i­cal vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism.’’

Mr. Obama coun­tered, “Gover­nor Rom­ney, I’m glad you agree that we have been suc­cess­ful in go­ing af­ter al-Qaeda, but I have to tell you that, you know, your strat­egy pre­vi­ously has been one that has been all over the map and is not de­signed to keep Amer­ica safe or to build on the op­por­tu­ni­ties that ex­ist in the Mid­dle East."

Mr. Rom­ney re­plied: “Well, my strat­egy is pretty straight­for­ward, which is to go af­ter the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to in­ter­rupt them, to kill them, to take them out of the pic­ture.’’

Mr. Obama chided Mr. Rom­ney for hav­ing once de­scribed Rus­sia as the na­tion’s great­est threat abroad. Mr. Rom­ney said that he had called Rus­sia a geo­s­tra­te­gic threat, a dis­tinc­tion he said from the na­tional se­cu­rity threat posed by Iran.

“Gover­nor, when it comes to 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,’’ Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Rom­ney re­peat­edly said he would do a bet­ter job of pro­ject­ing strength abroad, but he seemed to take pains to es­cape an im­age of Cold War tru­cu­lence, em­pha­siz­ing sev­eral times his de­ter­mi­na­tion to avoid armed con­flicts.

On Iran, he said he would have im­posed tougher sanc­tions sooner than the ad­min­is­tra­tion, but he did not spec­ify what new steps he would take to de­ter Iran from pur­suit of nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity. He dis­missed the Pres­i­dent’s crit­i­cism, say­ing, “At­tack­ing me is not an agenda.’’

Mr. Obama got off a line that im­me­di­ately lit up re­sponses on so­cial me­dia when he re­sponded to Mr. Rom­ney’s claim that the U.S. Navy is smaller than it was in 1917. He ac­knowl­edged there were fewer ships, but said that was be­cause mod­ern war­fare makes more use of sub­ma­rines and air­craft car­ri­ers, and pointed out the mil­i­tary also has fewer horses and bay­o­nets than it did in 1917.

Mr. Rom­ney re­peat­edly piv­oted from for­eign af­fairs to the do­mes­tic econ­omy, tak­ing any chance to crit­i­cize his op­po­nent on the econ­omy.

Mr. Obama turned to the do­mes­tic scene him­self late in the de­bate as he cited his fa­mil­iar crit­i­cism of Mr. Rom­ney’s op­po­si­tion to a bail­out of the auto in­dus­try, crit­i­cism Mr. Rom­ney in­sisted was in­ac­cu­rate in one of many ex­changes that re­prised is­sues from their pre­vi­ous two de­bates.

The goals for the two can­di­dates were clear be­fore they took the Lynn Univer­sity stage. Mr. Rom­ney was in­tent on char­ac­ter­iz­ing the Pres­i­dent as a weak leader who had in­vited chal­lenges abroad and failed to ade­quately sup­port U.S. al­lies, such as Is­rael. Mr. Obama sought to drive home the point that Mr. Rom­ney was not a plau­si­ble com­mander-in-chief, that his po­si­tions on is­sues from Libya to Iran had re­peat­edly shifted, united only in their util­ity as cud­gels against the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The ex­changes sparked by mod­er­a­tor Schief­fer marked the last joint ap­pear­ance of the can­di­dates with two weeks to go in a race that ap­peared to re­main neck-and-neck na­tion­ally and in the key swing states ex­pected to de­ter­mine the elec­toral vote win­ner.

There was a dis­tinct con­trast to the prede­bate en­vi­ron­ment, filled with ac­counts of a foun­der­ing Rom­ney cam­paign, reel­ing from the re­lease of the “47 per­cent’’ vid­eo­tape — recorded only a few miles from Mon­day’s de­bate site — with Mr. Rom­ney’s de­ri­sive char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of half the elec­tor­ate. The Re­pub­li­can also stum­bled with his hasty crit­i­cism in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the Ben­ghazi at­tack that the de­bate re­vis­ited Mon­day night.

Then came Den­ver. Their first de­bate pro­duced no mem­o­ra­ble zing­ers from ei­ther can­di­date, nor any ma­jor gaffes or mis­takes. But Mr. Rom­ney’s strong per­for­mance along­side a show­ing that even Mr. Obama ac­knowl­edged as list­less shook up per­cep­tions of the race, and moved Mr. Rom­ney into con­ten­tion na­tion­ally, and into leads or strik­ing dis­tance in one key state af­ter an­other.

The Pres­i­dent man­aged a more vig­or­ous per­for­mance in last week’s town-hall en­coun­ter in New York. Mr. Rom­ney con­tin­ued his ag­gres­sive crit­i­cism of Mr. Obama on the econ­omy, but once again failed in an at­tempt to score points off the Ben­ghazi at­tack. He in­sisted that Mr. Obama had failed to call the at­tack an act of ter­ror­ism in his ini­tial ac­counts, when, as mod­er­a­tor Candy Crow­ley noted at the time, Mr. Obama had in fact used that term in his first Rose Garden state­ment re­spond­ing to it. Mr. Rom­ney ap­peared to let that dis­agree­ment rest Mon­day night.

It will take some time to get a sense of whether the de­bate re­ac­tions will move num­bers in any last­ing way in this tight race. A George Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity/Po­lit­ico sur­vey re­leased ear­lier Mon­day was one of sev­eral that showed that Mr. Obama went into the night with an ad­van­tage on for­eign pol­icy. Likely vot­ers in 10 swing states said they trusted him over Mr. Rom­ney on for­eign pol­icy by a mar­gin of 51-42 per­cent. The bad news for Mr. Obama in that con­text is that vot­ers this year have con­sis­tently ranked for­eign pol­icy low on their list of pri­or­i­ties, far be­hind jobs and the econ­omy as is­sues likely to de­ter­mine their votes. The same sur­vey found Mr. Rom­ney with an over­all lead of 49 per­cent to 47 per­cent in those bat­tle­grounds. Mr. Rom­ney en­joys ra­zor-thin leads in the com­pi­la­tions of poll­ing av­er­ages main­tained by RealClearPol­i­tics and poll­ster.com. The per­sis­tently nar­row com­pe­ti­tion is un­der­scored by the re­sults of some of the re­cent com­po­nents of those av­er­ages. Among ei­ther na­tional sur­veys re­leased since the be­gin­ning of the week­end, Mr. Rom­ney led in three, Mr. Obama in an­other three, and in two more, they were tied.

The Block News Al­liance con­sists of The Blade and the Pitts­burgh Post-Ga­zette. James O’Toole is pol­i­tics ed­i­tor at the Post-Ga­zette.

Con­tact James O’Toole at: jo­toole@post-ga­zette.com, or 412-263-1562.


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