U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Governor Mitt Romney sparred on Monday over who was Israel's strongest defender but both agreed that a military strike over Iran's nuclear program must be a "last resort."
Tehran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is for developing weapons and that economic sanctions have so far failed to stop, is almost certain to be among the top foreign policy challenges facing the next president.
Yet Romney and Obama, in their foreign policy debate, did not offer sharply contrasting policies to address the challenge. They agreed on the need for tough economic pressure — and for safeguarding Israel. "If Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily," Romney said. "I will stand with Israel if they are attacked," Obama said. Both were responding to a question on whether they would consider an attack on Israel an attack on the United States.
Obama later called Israel "a true friend and our greatest ally in the region," and said Israel and the U.S. maintain "unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation, including dealing with the Iranian threat." Obama went on to say that a nuclear Iran would be a national security threat to the United States. He stressed he would not let Iran obtain a nuclear bomb so long as he is president and would not let Iran "perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere."
Iran's leaders have from time to time threatened to eradicate Israel, and Israeli leaders see an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat. The question that has risen repeatedly this year is whether Israel would conduct a unilateral strike against Iran's nuclear sites, which would put the United States in a difficult position of whether to enter another Middle East conflict.
The candidates did not say what they would do if Israel conducted a unilateral strike on Iran. Pressed by the moderator on how he would react if Israel were to launch a unilateral strike against Iran, Romney said, "Our relationship with Israel, my relationship with the prime minister of Israel [Benjamin Netanyahu] is such that we would not get a call saying our bombers are on the way or their fighters are on the way." Romney and Netanyahu both worked for a Boston-based consulting firm in the 1970s. The two still maintain a close friendship, which was clearly on display during Romney's visit to Israel over the summer.
Obama accused Romney of rushing to conclude that a military strike was necessary. "The disagreement I have with Governor Romney is that, during the course of this campaign, he's often talked as if we should take premature military action," Obama said at Monday's debate, which was the final such encounter before the Nov. 6 election. "I think that would be a mistake, because when I send young men and women into harm's way, I always understand that is the last resort, not the first resort," he said.
"We need to increase pressure, time and time again, on Iran because anything other than ... a solution to this ... which stops this, this nuclear folly of theirs, is unacceptable to America," Romney said. "And of course, a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only ... consider if all of the other avenues had been ... tried to their full extent," he said.
Romney challenged the effectiveness of Obama's Iran policy, saying his perceived weakness has strengthened the ayatollahs' resolve. "They have looked at this administration and felt that the administration was not as strong as it needed to be," Romney said. "I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength." "We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran. We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran," Romney continued. "And — and we should not have wasted these four years to the extent they’ve — they continue to be able to spin these centrifuges and get that much closer."
Obama bluntly said newspaper reports that Iran and the United States had agreed to hold bilateral talks on Tehran's nuclear program were not true. Iran has also denied that bilateral negotiations on its nuclear program had been scheduled.
Romney went on to attack the president for sidelining the relations with Israel as part of the effort to curry favor with other Middle East players, evident by what the governor called an "apology tour."
"You went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And by [the] way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations," Romney said. "And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators."
Romney also attacked Obama for not acting to shore-up relations with Israel even after 38 members of Congress had sent him a letter urging him to do so. "They asked him, please repair the tension — Democrat senators — please repair the damage," Romney said.
Obama said his administration and he personally consider Israel's security paramount, in part owing to the impression left by his visit there as a candidate in 2008. "I went down to the border town of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children’s bedrooms, and I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles." Obama also attacked Romney for using his recent trip to Israel to benefit his campaign war chest rather than to study the region. "When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself [of] the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable."
Speaking on Egypt, Obama said he would make sure Egypt's pro-Islamic regime would uphold the country's long-standing peace treaty with Israel. "That is a red line for us, because not only is Israel’s security at stake, but our security is at stake if that unravels," Obama said.
On Syria, Romney tried to put Obama on the defensive by saying the administration has not led in the crisis in which thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power. "What I'm afraid of is, we've watched over the past year or so, first the president saying, well, we'll let the U.N. deal with it," Romney said. "We should be playing the leadership role there."The United States should work with partners to organize the Syrian opposition and "make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves," he said.
"I am confident that Assad's days are numbered," Obama said. "But what we can't do is to simply suggest that, as Governor Romney at times has suggested, that giving heavy weapons, for example, to the Syrian opposition is a simple proposition that would lead us to be safer over the long term." Obama also used Monday night's debate to criticize Romney's support for beginning the war in Iraq, for opposing his plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, for inconsistent stances on Afghanistan and for opposing nuclear treaties with Russia. "Every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong," Obama said. Romney responded that "attacking me is not an agenda" for dealing with a dangerous world.
If and how the debate would affect the Nov. 6 presidential election was not clear. Foreign policy, the theme of the debate at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Florida, has not been a major issue in a race centered on the U.S. economy. But both candidates were determined to appear to be strong leaders, rallying their supporters and winning over the remaining undecided voters.
Romney appeared more measured than Obama, agreeing with the president on a number of issues, perhaps seeking to appear more moderate to centrist voters who may determine the election's outcome. Obama, from the opening moments, wasn't as subdued. He said Romney would reinstate the unpopular foreign policies of President George W. Bush.
"Governor, when it comes to our 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," Obama said.
Romney said that despite early hopes, the ouster of despotic regimes in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere over the past year has resulted in a "rising tide of chaos." He said the president has failed to come up with a coherent policy to grapple with the change sweeping the Middle East.
Foreign policy is generally seen as Obama's strength and he highlighted two of his campaign's main points, that he gave the order leading to the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and fulfilled a promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Romney, a multimillionaire businessman, has little foreign affairs experience. Romney congratulated Obama "on taking out Osama bin Laden and taking on the leadership of al-Qaida." But he added, "we can't kill our way out of this mess. ... We must have a comprehensive and robust strategy."
The election is a state-by-state contest and the outcome in a small number of states that are not predictably Democratic or Republican will determine the winner. With the final debate behind them, both men are embarking on a two-week whirlwind of campaigning. The president is slated to speak in six states during a two-day trip that begins Wednesday. Romney intends to visit two or three states a day. Already four million ballots have been cast in early voting in more than two dozen states. Just hours before the debate CNN published the latest "poll of polls," showing Romney has been able to maintain his momentum. The poll, which is the average of five polls conducted over the past week, has both Obama and Romney locked in a dead heat — each garnering 47 percent support among likely voters. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from Monday night (before the debate) also had both candidates tied at 46% in a sample that included both registered and likely voters. Gallup's daily tracking poll has Romney holding on to a 6% advantage among likely voters.
The last debate could turn out to be decisive in such a close race. One Democratic activist told Politico on Monday that the voters who had yet to make up their minds “go back and forth every day”. “One day they are for Romney, and one day they are for the president. Right now they have gone back to Obama. The last thing they hear matters. … It’s extremely fluid outside the base.”
For the first time since May, The Politico/George Washington University Battleground Tracking Poll has Romney ahead in ten competitive swing states, with the former governor commanding a 50% to 48% lead among likely voters. This marks an upset from last week, when the president was at 49% to Romney's 48%. In all-important Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes, Obama still maintains a 50% to 45% advantage among likely voters according to a Quinnipiac University/CBS poll, although Romney has been able to narrow the gap lately.
Meanwhile, real estate magnate Donald Trump, who is a Romney supporter, announced on Monday that he will release as early as Wednesday a political bombshell the could decide the race. Speaking on Fox News, Trump described it as "something very, very big concerning the president of the United States." “It’s going to be very big. I know one thing — you will cover it in a very big fashion," Trump said. Trump has been one of Obama's most vocal critics and even questioned Obama's claim that he was born in the United States. The U.S. constitution stipulates that the president must be a "natural-born" U.S. citizen.