Oct. 23 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney accused each other of failing to have clear foreign policy visions as the two met last night for their third and final debate.
“I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong,” Obama, 51, said at the faceoff in Boca Raton, Florida. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has put forth strategies that are “all over the map,” Obama said.
Romney, 65, began the debate by criticizing Obama for what he described as growing threats in Syria, Libya, Mali, Egypt and Iran. While he congratulated Obama for the raid that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, he said, “we must have a comprehensive strategy” to reject extremism.
“We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” Romney said, and “disturbing events” in the Middle East represent “a pretty dramatic reversal in the kinds of hopes we had for that region.”
Obama stressed his commander-in-chief credentials while trying to paint Romney as out of his depth. The president told Romney that a complaint he frequently makes on the campaign trail about lower U.S. navy ship levels was misplaced because the military has changed.
“We also have fewer horses and bayonets” than in the past because of differing national security demands, Obama said.
He criticized Romney for once saying Russia was the biggest geopolitical foe facing the U.S.
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama said.
Instant polls gave the edge to Obama in the debate. In a CNN poll of debate viewers, 48 percent judged Obama the winner, while 40 percent gave the nod to Romney. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
In a CBS News poll of 521 undecided voters, viewers picked Obama as the winner 53 percent to 23 percent. The margin of error was 4 points.
The debate at Lynn University, moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News, may have offered the last chance for a game-changing event before the Nov. 6 election.
Romney’s performance in the first matchup on Oct. 3, devoted to domestic policy, gave him a boost in national and state polls. Obama -- criticized even by supporters for a lackluster effort in the opening debate -- rebounded in a town-hall forum on Oct. 16, though viewers polled afterward gave him a less-resounding win than Romney claimed in the first meeting.
Both candidates last night at times tried to turn the subject to domestic policy, with Obama talking about education and Romney reeling off his five-point plan to improve the economy and criticizing the president for a jobless rate that until last month had continually exceeded 8 percent during his administration. The rate dropped to 7.8 percent in September.
During one of the debate’s more heated exchanges, Obama again accused Romney of wanting to let U.S. automakers go bankrupt rather than support a U.S. bailout.
“That’s the height of silliness,” Romney retorted.
“The people in Detroit don’t forget,” Obama said.
Matter of Degrees
On various foreign policy specifics, the two sometimes professed agreement or differed only to a degree. Romney said he supported Obama’s decision to call for the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He added that he wished that the U.S. had worked “more aggressively” with allies in the region to pave the way for an easier transition.
Romney also said he wouldn’t send troops into Syria even as he said Obama wasn’t doing enough to deal with the mass killings of civilians there under President Bashar al-Assad.
The president responded: “He doesn’t have different ideas, and that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing to try to promote a moderate Syrian leadership and an effective transition so that we get Assad out.”
On Afghanistan, Romney said he would expect troops to pull out of the country in 2014, the same goal set by Obama.
For weeks, Romney has been criticizing Obama for not providing enough security for the consulate in Libya that was attacked on Sept. 11 and for botching the aftermath of the strike that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Last night, Romney glossed over Libya and instead turned his criticism on Obama’s general Middle East policy.
Israel and Iran sparked some of the debate’s most contentious moments. Romney chastised Obama for what he called an “apology tour” in which Obama visited Arab countries and neglected Israel.
“They noticed that you skipped Israel,” Romney said.
Obama retorted that he had visited Israel as a candidate and, unlike Romney this summer, didn’t hold a fundraiser in the country as a candidate. Obama said he went to the Holocaust museum “to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”
Romney criticized Obama for not doing enough to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. “I think they saw weakness, where they expected to find American strength,” Romney said of Iranian leaders.
Obama and Romney both reiterated their positions on China, saying the country can’t violate trade rules. While Obama called the nation “a potential partner” and said he was focused on bringing trade complaints, Romney said he would label the country a currency manipulator on his first day in office.
No Foreign Policy
Romney’s resume includes no foreign policy experience and his election-year trip overseas this summer was marred by his insult to the U.K. over its preparations for the Olympics, the suggestion that he’d give Israel carte blanche to attack Iran, and remarks that Palestinians saw as insensitive.
Still, his recent campaign criticisms of Obama, especially over Libya, may have hit home for some voters.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released yesterday shows that 49 percent of likely voters chose Obama when asked who they trust most to handle international affairs, while 46 percent picked Romney. Obama led on the question by 7 percentage points earlier this month.
Overall in the ABC/Post poll, 49 percent backed Obama for president and 48 percent sided with Romney. The margin of error in the Oct. 18-21 survey of 1,376 likely voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points.