President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney met at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., Oct. 22 for their third and final debate of the 2012 presidential election cycle. The day of the debate was also the 50th anniversary of the day that President John F. Kennedy revealed that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The topic of the debate was foreign policy and was separated into segments, with each candidate given two minutes to answer a question. The remaining time in each segment was used for discussion and follow-up questions by moderator Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
As this was the last debate between the Democratic and Republican nominees, expectations were high for both candidates to perform well. Obama and Romney both presented admirably, capably defending their points. It seemed, however, that Romney agreed with many of Obama’s foreign policy aims and things that have already been accomplished, in contrast with earlier statements Romney made throughout the campaign criticizing Obama’s foreign policy.
In a post-debate poll conducted by CNN and ORC International, 48 percent of respondents felt that Obama won the debate, compared with 40 percent thinking that Romney had won. This is similar to the outcome of the second presidential debate, where respondents gave Obama the win by a seven-point margin. The debate could not be considered decisive, however, as 50 percent of respondents also said that the final debate did not make them more likely to vote for either candidate. The CNN/ORC International poll also found that 51 percent of respondents felt Obama seemed to be a stronger leader than Romney, a five-point lead, but the candidates’ likeability was nearly tied, with Obama at 48 percent more likeable and Romney at 47 percent.
Understandably, much of the conversation on debate night concerned the Middle East and how each candidate would handle the various situations there. The first question concerned Libya and whether there had been a policy or intelligence failure in handling the situation there, especially in Benghazi. As Schieffer pointed out, Romney had previously called the situation an example of “American policy in the Middle East … unraveling before our very eyes.” In his response, Romney pointed to various al-Qaida threats in the region, the consulate bombing in Benghazi, and claimed that Iran is four years closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon, which has been a constant talking point for him. He also said that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess,” but contradicted himself just a few minutes later in the debate by saying, “My strategy’s pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys … to kill them.” Additionally, he put forward four points for aiding the situation in the Middle East, which included more economic development, better education, gender equality, and the rule of law in civil societies. Some critics have contrasted Romney’s statements about needing gender equality in the Middle East with his domestic policies against abortion, Planned Parenthood, and his repeated refusal to state whether or not he would have signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Obama, in his response, talked about his accomplishments thus far in the Middle East. He mentioned how the U.S. has taken out the core of al-Qaida’s leadership, perhaps most significantly Osama bin Laden himself. He spoke of how he ended the war in Iraq and implemented the plan to transition out of Afghanistan by 2014. With regard to Libya specifically, he talked about how an international coalition was organized, with help from Obama and the U.S., to aid the Libyan rebels and remove Moammar Gadhafi from power, which led to, in Obama’s words, “tens of thousands of Libyans … marching and saying, America’s our friend.” Obama then attacked Romney for previous comments, such as a recent one in which, according to Obama, Romney claimed that Russia was the greatest geopolitical threat that the U.S. faces, as opposed to al-Qaida or Iran. Obama also managed to slip a zinger in when he said to Romney that “the 1980s are now calling to for their foreign policy back” because the Cold War has been over for two decades and Russia is now considered, perhaps tentatively, an ally of the U.S. Romney countered Obama’s claim about Russia, but post-debate fact-checking has shown that Obama’s claim was true; Romney did claim that Russia is the greatest geopolitical threat. It is also true, however, that shortly after that, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Romney said that the greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran.
On the topic of Syria and the civil war there, both Obama and Romney said that they believed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs to surrender power and that he will eventually do so. Obama put forth positions against sending ground troops to aid the Syrian rebels, and Romney also was opposed to putting the U.S. military there. Both men discussed arming Syrian rebels with heavy weapons, and both seemed opposed to the idea in large part, one reason being the fear that the weapons would be turned against the U.S., as has happened in the past with Iraq. Overall, both men seemed to agree about how to approach Syria, and this particular topic did not come off as divisive between the two. Romney did, however, have a bit of a gaffe during the discussion. He claimed that Syria was especially important to deal with, as Syria is Iran’s only ally and, he said, Syria is Iran’s “route to the sea.” This last statement is not true; Syria and Iran do not share a border. Additionally, Iran is located on the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, which lead to the Arabian Sea, and thus does not need another country for a route to the sea.
After an interlude discussing education policies in the U.S. during the middle of the foreign policy debate, the two candidates found an issue on which they disagreed: military spending. Obama pointed out that the United States spends more on its defense budget per annum than the next 10 countries in the world put together, which include China, the United Kingdom and France. He criticized Romney for his economic plan, which would supposedly provide $5 trillion in tax cuts, while pointing out that Romney wants to increase defense spending by $2 trillion, which the Department of Defense and the military is not asking for. Romney countered by talking about the Navy, which is at its smallest since 1917, according to Romney, and claimed that the Navy needs 313 ships but currently only has 285. He also criticized the fact that the U.S. would not be able to fight in two conflicts at one time, while previous military strategy has always included that ability. Obama then talked about how he consults with various important military players, such as the Secretary of the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when making military budget decisions. He also pulled out another zinger with regard to the number of Navy ships by saying that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets” than we did in the 1910s.
Both Obama and Romney performed well in the final debate of this election. They agreed on many points throughout the evening, especially with regard to Israel. Both said that they would support Israel if it were attacked by, for example, Iran, though neither directly said that they would consider it an act of war against the United States itself. They did disagree on a few issues, such as the timeline of withdrawing from Afghanistan and the way the pullout of Iraq was handled.
This debate was not decisive; the most recent polling data show Obama and Romney within three points or fewer of each other in all but one of the polls, which is considered a statistical tie based on the margins of error of the polls. This race will likely be a tight one right up to Election Day Nov. 6, with each candidate having another 11 days to make his case to the nation.
Editor’s note: The author self-identifies as a supporter of President Obama who has donated to his re-election campaign. That said, this article is intended to be a commentary on the performance of both candidates in the third presidential debate, not a piece specifically supporting either candidate.