Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called for stronger U.S. foreign policies and increased U.S. military strength under his presidency during Monday’s final debate with President Barack Obama, as the president attacked his challenger in defending an administration under fire over the terror attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, coming massive defense cuts, and the debate over whether to continue sanctions or use military force to stop the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The debate revealed the stark contrasts between Romney’s plan for renewed American leadership in the world and the president’s vision of leading from behind while diminishing the United States’ role in the world.
Throughout the debate, Romney avoided harsh attacks on Obama and several times mentioned that the president’s attacks on him and his plans are not going to produce a better economy, more jobs, or a safer world.
Romney criticized the president for four years of weak leadership and the president called for moving forward instead of returning to the policies of the past.
"This nation is the hope of the earth," Romney said at the end of the 90-minute debate. "We need strong leadership. I'd like to be that leader, with your support. I'll work with you. I'll lead you in an open and honest way. And I ask for your vote. I'd like to be the next president of the United States to support and help this great nation, and to make sure that we all together maintain America as the hope of the earth."
The president emphasized the idea that Romney as president would represent a step backward and said, "We got to do a little nation-building at home." The appeal to his liberal Democratic base came as opinion polls showed the race shifting toward Romney, who is leading or even with the incumbent in many polls.
"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 I've got a different vision for America. I want to build on our strengths," the president said, noting that as commander in chief he would maintain the strongest military in the world.
Under moderator Bob Schieffer, a CBS news anchor, issues debated included the terrorist attack in Libya that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans on Sept. 11; growing chaos in North Africa and the Middle East; Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons; the debate over the president’s sharp cuts in defense; and how to deal with the growing economic and security threats posed by China.
On turmoil in the Middle East, Romney said the United States needs to attack the ideology of Islamic extremism, rather than simply using military force and covert action against terrorists and their supporters.
"But we can't kill our way out of this mess," Romney said. "We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the—the world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism which is really not on the run. It's certainly not hiding."
Obama, reversing his earlier assertion that the al Qaeda terrorist group is on the path to decline, said during the debate that "central" al Qaeda had been decimated. He said to Romney: "Your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East."
Romney said Obama’s "apology tour" of the Middle East in 2009 was designed to downgrade relations with Israel and seek closer ties to Muslim states.
The president then said Romney was wrong to call Russia the biggest geopolitical threat, claiming "the Cold War’s been over for 20 years."
Romney then made clear that the rest of what he said about Russia was that Iran is the greatest national security threat facing the United States, and raised Obama’s private message to Russian leader Vladimir Putin through then-President Dmitri Medvedev in March promising more flexibility in missile defense and security talks with Russia if reelected.
"Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again," Romney said. "I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin, and I'm certainly not going to say to him, ‘I'll give you more flexibility after the election.' After the election he'll get more backbone."
On Syria, Obama defended his administration’s efforts to organize international support against the Bashar al-Assad regime, but Romney said it was slow and failed to properly organize and arm the Syrian opposition that will emerge as friendly toward the West.
On America’s role in the world, Obama said the United States is an "indispensible nation" but that Romney is proposing "wrong and reckless policies" that are similar to the policies of former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Romney countered that his policies would create jobs and rebuild the economy, balance the budget, and support small business development.
On the looming danger of budget sequestration, which will involve nearly $500 billion in defense cuts on top of $487 billion over 10 years, Obama did not directly address the issue but said sequestration "will not happen."
Instead, the president criticized Romney’s economic plans, saying that he will not be able to fulfill plans for increasing military spending if he is elected.
Romney said: "Our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That's unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy."
The U.S. Air Force, too, is older and smaller than at any time since 1947.
"I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is the combination of the budget cuts that the president has as well as the sequestration cuts. That, in my view, is making our future less certain and less secure. I won't do it," Romney said.
Obama insisted that his defense program would focus less on hardware and more on capabilities, including cyber weapons and space.
On Israel, both Romney and Obama said they would back Israel if it is attacked by Iran.
"First of all, Israel is a true friend," Obama said. "It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel."
Romney also promised to back the Jewish state: "I want to underscore 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. And if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily."
Both candidates promised to continue "crippling sanctions" against Iran over its refusal to abide by international controls on its nuclear program, with Romney calling for putting Iran’s leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad under indictment for inciting genocide, and putting even tighter sanctions in place.
Obama repeated his position that the United States military option against Iran is on the table.
Romney replied that the projection of weakness by the president to states of the world had undermined the credibility of the U.S. threat to use force.
"We need to put the pressure on them as hard as we possibly can, because if we do that, we won't have to take the military action," Romney said.
Romney also pointed out that the president failed to support Iranian opposition groups that took to the streets in 2009 by remaining silent and not supporting their protests against rigged elections.
"I think from the very beginning, one of the challenges we've had with Iran is that they have looked at this administration and—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."
In response to Romney’s charge that the president skipped visiting Israel on his apology tour, Obama said he visited Israel in 2008 during his run for the presidency.
Romney also indicated he would follow the Obama administration’s policy of bringing all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by 2014 and turn over security to Afghan police and military forces.
Pakistan, Romney warned, is building up its nuclear forces and faces growing internal divisions, and despite its differences with the United States should be supported.
On the use of drones in the war against terrorism, Romney said he favored continuing drone strikes but also adding a more comprehensive strategy to counter Islamic extremism.
Obama said his policy against terror was not just "going after bin Laden" but developing partnerships with states such as Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan to defeat terrorists.
On China, Romney did not mention China’s growing military power but instead focused on how he would address Beijing’s unfair trade and financial practices, promising to declare China a currency manipulator, a step Obama has declined to take.
When asked if that would create a trade war with a major trading partner, Romney said: "There’s one going on right now that we don’t know about. It’s a silent one and they are winning."
Obama for his part highlighted his administration’s "pivot" to Asia that is designed to counter China’s military buildup and to reassure U.S. friends and allies in the region that the U.S. will maintain stability by keeping China in check.
A Gallup poll Monday showed Romney with a seven percent point lead over Obama, the largest lead in any national presidential poll.
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll showed the incumbent president in a dead heat with Romney, 47 percent to 47 percent, a sign that any lead the president had among voters has evaporated.