President Barack Obama and rival Mitt Romney sparred over foreign policy last night in their third and final debate, touching on the turmoil in the Middle East, Iran's nuclear threat, support for Israel, and, ultimately, on which man presents himself as the strongest leader.
Obama repeatedly emphasized his record over the last four years, reminding voters that he withdrew American troops from Iraq, began a wind down in Afghanistan and ordered the special-forces operation that killed Osama bin Laden. He said Romney "seems to want the foreign policies from the 1980s, the social policies from the 1950s and economic policies from the 1920s."
"America is stronger now than when I came into office," said the Democrat, who was the aggressor during most exchanges.
Romney accused his rival of carrying out an "apology tour" around the globe and insufficiently funding the military.
"We're four years closer to a nuclear Iran," Romney said. "I see the Middle East with a rising tide of chaos, violence, tumult. . . . I look around the world and I don't see our influence growing. I see our influence receding."
On Iran, Obama said: "As long as I am president . . . Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," adding that he has helped cripple Iran's economy through sanctions.
While more reserved than the previous two debates, Romney frequently tried to turn foreign-affairs questions into domestic ones -- saying that the faltering economy undermines the U.S. internationally.
Romney said he wanted a "peaceful world . . . and that begins with a strong economy here at home, and, unfortunately, the economy is not strong."
Obama tried to emphasize his foreign-affairs experience and Romney's lack thereof. He said the Republican has "been all over the map" when it comes to foreign policy.
"I know you haven't been in a position to execute foreign policy," Obama said at one point. "And every time you've had a chance to offer an opinion, you've been wrong."
"Attacking me is not an agenda," Romney fired back.
The former Massachusetts governor accused Obama of not providing enough leadership to help overthrow the Assad regime in Syria, failing to anticipate the violence in Libya that led to the killing of the American ambassador, and not showing enough "backbone" with Russia.
Romney also said Obama hasn't sufficiently funded the military to provide long-term security. "I will not cut a military budget," Romney said.
The candidates went to lengths to stress their support for Israel, each trying to imply he would be a stronger ally. For example, when asked about the Muslim Brotherhood winning the elections in Egypt, Obama used the question to show solidarity with Israel, saying: "They have to abide by their 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."
Romney also stressed the relationship. "I want to underscore the -- the same point the president made, which is that if I'm president of the United States, when I'm president of the United States, we will stand with Israel," the Republican said. "And -- and if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily."
The 90-minute format was broken down into six, 15-minute segments, moderated by longtime CBS newsman Bob Schieffer. Questions centered on America's role in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, the changing Middle East, the rise of China, and tomorrow's world.
Going into the final debate, polls showed voters slightly favor Obama over Romney when asked about foreign affairs. And it came as no surprise that Romney used his closing statement to go back to the economy. He also emphasized that in Massachusetts he worked with a state Legislature that was "87 percent" Democrat.
"I learned how to get along on the other side of the aisle," Romney said. "We've got to do that in Washington. Washington is broken. I know what it takes to get this country back."
Obama, as he has done through much of the campaign, tried to tie Romney to former President George W. Bush.
"You know, over the last four years, we've made real progress digging our way out of policies that gave us two prolonged wars, record deficits and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," Obama said. "And Governor Romney wants to take us back to those policies . . . "