BOCA RATON, Fla. – At the final presidential debate here, President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney exchanged fire on the hot topic of foreign policy. CBS News' Bob Schieffer moderated the third, and last, presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
The debate focused on foreign policy and was divided into six 15-minute segments: 1) America's role in the world, 2) Afghanistan and Pakistan, 3) Israel and Iran, 4) the changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism (Part 1) 5) the changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism (Part 2) and 6) the rise of China.
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With the presidential race in nearly a dead heat just two weeks before Election Day, strategists argue the final debate could prove critical. During the first presidential debate, Obama was criticized for his poor showing by his own supporters. After the second debate, which many argued was a draw, those in the legacy media dubbed Obama the winner.
"Mitt Romney was smiling, he was relaxed, he looked like a winner," Pat Buchanan told Fox News. "Obama was frustrated it was ending not the way he wanted. You'd have to say Mitt Romney's the winner."
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Changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism, Part 1
The debate began with the subject of Libya, the Obama administration's response to the Benghazi attack that included the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three Americans.
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In the aftermath of the attack, the Obama administration blamed an amateur anti-Islamic film, which was not the cause of the bloodshed. In an appearance on Comedy Central, Obama recently told comedian Jon Stewart the deaths of the four Americans were not "optimal."
As he often has this election year, Obama reminded Americans that Osama bin Laden was killed under his leadership.
Romney argued that Islamic extremism "is certainly not on the run." He said America must "help these nations create civil societies."
Obama accused Romney of calling Russia the greatest geopolitical threat to America and accused him of wanting to import the foreign policy of the 1980s.
"Every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong," Obama charged, assailing Romney for his comments on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. He said Romney's strategy "is wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map."
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Romney responded, "Attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not dealing with the challenges we're dealing with in the Middle East."
He clarified that he said Russia is a geopolitical foe, and al-Qaida the greatest threat to the nation's security.
The two debated withdrawal timelines for troops in Iraq. Obama charged Romney with wanting to keep soldiers there.
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Meanwhile, Romney has blasted Obama for his management of the humanitarian crisis in Syria as more than 30,000 civilians have been killed in the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Obama said the U.S. has mobilized sanctions against the government and "mobilized the moderate forces in Syria."
"What we're seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking," Obama said. "[B]ut we also have to realize that for us to get more entangled in Syria is a serious step. … I'm confident that Assad's days are numbered."
However, he argued against "giving heavy weapons" to the opposition, and Romney agreed.
Romney said Syria's removal of Assad is important, but America cannot be drawn into conflict there. He called for "a very effective leadership effort" and ensuring Syrians who are armed "are responsible parties."
"We should be playing the leadership role there, not on the ground with the military," Romney said.
Schieffer asked Romney whether he would put no-fly zones in Syria. Romney responded that he would not put the U.S. military in Syria. He said he wants to see responsible Syrians armed to defend themselves.
"This has been going on for a year," Romney said. "This should have been a time for American leadership."
What is America's role in the world?
Romney said he believes America has a responsibility of promoting freedom and free elections, but that it must start by improving its own economy at home and strengthening the military for the long term. He promised not to cut the military budget and to stand by U.S. allies.
Obama touted his effort to end the war in Iraq, declaring, "Our alliances have never been stronger." He emphasized "rebuilding America," improving education, cutting oil imports, developing "clean energy technologies," and slashing spending.
Obama accused Romney of proposing "wrong and reckless policies" and supporting President George Bush.
Romney emphasized his role as a businessman who has created jobs while Obama leads a nation struggling with unemployment. He also advocated expanding development of energy resources, embracing Latin America "as a huge opportunity for us," working to balance the budget and championing small business.
Obama chimed in, accusing Romney of failed policies for small businesses while he served as governor of Massachusetts. Then he discussed education reform and the importance of teachers in making a difference in producing a skilled workforce and promoting business creation.
Romney touted Massachusetts' education record, which "allowed us to become the No. 1 in the nation."
Schieffer attempted to redirect the debate to foreign policy, asking Romney where he will get increased funding for the military.
Romney replied that he would cut discretionary spending without touching the defense budget. He promised to "get rid of Obamacare" on Day 1 and give programs such as Medicaid to the states, "because states run these programs more efficiently." He also promised a balanced budget within eight to 10 years.
Obama argued that military spending has gone up every year he's been in office.
"What you can't do is spend $2 trillion in additional military spending … $5 trillion in tax cuts … and somehow deal with the deficit we've already got," he told Romney. "The math simply doesn't work."
Romney touted his experience balancing budgets in business and as governor of Massachusetts.
"Our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. … Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1940," Romney said. "This, in my view, is the highest responsibility of the president of the united states, which is to maintain the safety of the American people."
Israel and Iran
On the topic of Israel, Obama called the nation "a true friend": "I will stand with Israel if they are attacked."
"As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," Obama declared. "… A nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security and to Israel's national security."
Obama emphasized his administration's efforts to impose sanctions on Iran. He accused Romney of talking "as if we should take premature military action," calling it a "mistake" and "a last resort."
Romney expressed his support for Israel, culturally and militarily. He said he called for "crippling sanctions" and would have put them in place earlier. He said he would tighten those sanctions and take on diplomatic isolation efforts, ensuring Ahmadinejad is indicted.
"A military action is the last resort. It is something one would only consider if all of the other avenues have been tried to their fullest extent."
WND broke a story last week quoting Iranian sources as saying a deal has already been brokered between high-ranking U.S. administration negotiators and a representative of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that calls for Iran to halt part of its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of many U.S. sanctions against the Islamic regime.
The next day, the New York Times followed up with a story reporting that Obama administration officials had confirmed the U.S. and Iran had agreed to one-on-one talks in what could be "a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran."
During the debate, Obama denied the reports.
"The clock is ticking," Obama said. "We aren't going to allow Iran to engage in talks that are going nowhere."
Romney argued that the talks with Iran have not been effective, and the job of the U.S. president is "to show strength." He reemphasized tightened sanctions and increased diplomatic pressure.
Obama claimed Iran is at its weakest point in many years. "We'll continue to keep the pressure on to make sure they do not get a nuclear weapon," he said.
But Romney charged: "We're four years closer to a nuclear Iran."
He reminded Obama that he flew to Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other nations – except Israel – on an "apology tour," saying America had been divisive and dictatorial toward other nations.
Schieffer asked Romney, "What if the prime minister of Israel called you on the phone and said, 'Our bombers are on the way, we're going to bomb Iran."
Romney argued that his relationship is stronger with Israel and that he would never receive such a call. He cited numerous foreign policy concerns and declared, "I don't see our influence growing around the world. I see our influence receding."
Obama accused Romney of being "all over the map" on foreign policy, saying the governor once opposed a timetable in Afghanistan and advocated increased American presence in Iraq.
He once again touted his administration's efforts to capture Osama bin Ladin, saying, "It was worth moving heaven and earth to get him."
America's longest war: Afghanistan and Pakistan
On the topic of bringing troops home from Afghanistan, Schieffer asked, "What do you do if the deadline arrives and it is obvious the Afghans are unable to handle their security? Do we still leave?"
Romney promised to have American troops home by 2014.
Obama added that America has met many of its objectives and that "there's no reason why Americans should die when Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country."
"After a decade at war, it's time to do some nation building here at home," he said.
Schieffer turned to Romney and pointed out that Americans continue to die at the hands of groups supported by Pakistan.
The nation still provides safe haven to terrorists, though the U.S. gives it billions of dollars in aid.
But Romney warned that it's not time to "divorce" a nation with nuclear weapons.
"If it becomes a failed state, there are nuclear weapons there, and you've got terrorists there that could get their hands on nuclear weapons."
Asked about his position on drones, Romney said he supports the use of such technology to "go after the people who present a threat to our nation."
With regard to foreign conflicts, Obama argued that America has "stood on the side of democracy."
He asserted, "Al-Qaida is much weaker than it was when I came into office."
Rise of China
Schieffer asked the candidates, "What do you believe is the greatest threat to national security?"
Obama focused primarily on China, saying his administration has insisted that China "play by the rules" on international trade.
"We've brought more cases against China for violating trade rules than the previous administration did in two terms," Obama argued.
He touted his administration's success in stopping China from flooding the U.S. with defective tires.
However, Romney emphatically argued, "The greatest national security threat America faces is a nuclear Iran."
He also stressed "trade relations with China that work for us."
Romney said he would hold China accountable and label the nation as a currency manipulator. Schieffer interjected, asking him if he thought he might spark a trade war by doing so.
But Romney argued that there's already a trade war, because "we have an enormous trade imbalance." He said China cannot keep holding down the value of its currency, stealing America's intellectual property and continuing to "roll all over us."
However, Obama attacked Romney, saying the GOP candidate will not get tough on China and accusing him of outsourcing jobs. He said U.S. exports to China have doubled and currencies are at their most advantageous to exporters since 1993.
"We believe China can be a partner," Obama said, "but we're also sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power, that we are going to have a presence there."
Romney refuted Obama's charge that he would support sending jobs overseas or hurt the U.S. auto industry by liquidating it. He blasted Obama for pumping taxpayer money into private companies rather than allowing the companies to proceed through bankruptcy.
In his closing statement, Obama once again charged Romney with promoting "reckless" foreign policy.
"I've got a different vision for America," Obama declared. "I want to build on our strengths."
He emphasized putting Americans back to work, developing energy resources, reducing the deficit by cutting spending and "asking the wealthy to do a little bit more."
Obama promised to maintain the "strongest military in the world" and "work every single day to make sure America continues to be the greatest nation on earth."
Romney declared that America has an "opportunity for real leadership" and must make Americans confident that their future is secure.
He warned that the nation will follow the path of Greece under a second Obama administration.
Romney promised to balance the budget and "get people back to work with 12 million new jobs."
"Washington is broken," Romney declared. "I know what it takes to get this country back."