BOCA RATON, Fla. — In their third and final presidential debate, President Obama and Mitt Romney nodded to areas of agreement, but still found plenty of ways to disagree over American policy and approaches in the Middle East, and the country’s evolving role around the world.
Obama underscored his achievements as commander in chief — ending the war in Iraq, drawing down troops in Afghanistan, and killing Osama bin Laden — to argue that he has been effective and vigilant in the war on terror.
Romney countered that the administration did not show the foresight to predict and manage the tumultuous changes in the region since the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
The former Massachusetts governor said that extremists have seized influence there, and the United States is weaker and less safe than four years ago.
Seated alongside his rival before moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Obama quickly went on offense in the only debate dedicated to foreign policy. He defended US policy ranging from Libya, to Syria, and Egypt — while Romney argued that the United States should be working more closely with rebels.
Several of the candidates’ differences appeared to be more a matter of rhetoric or approach than hard policy.
And Romney sought several times to focus on similarities with the president on foreign policy issues that he generally does not discuss. He agreed with the use of drone strikes in Pakistan, the call for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt, and the president’s aversion to US military intervention in Syria.
Romney also adopted a much softer tone than he does on the campaign trail. He prefaced tough rhetoric on China, for example, by saying that “we can be a partner with China. We don’t have to be an adversary in any shape or form.”
Obama strongly defended his stance toward Iran and his efforts to curb the development of its nuclear program. Sanctions have been crippling, he said, pledging that he will not permit Iran to develop a nuclear weapon during his administration.
“Al Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated,” Obama said.
Romney, however, said the region has become a threat to the nation’s interests. “You see Al Qaeda rushing in; you see other jihadist groups rushing in,” Romney said.
“My strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys,” he said. The key is “to get the Muslim world to reject extremism on its own.”
The Republican said he would help Muslim leaders reach that goal by aiding their countries economically, encouraging education, and supporting the rule of law.
One of the most stinging lines of the debate came after Romney criticized Obama on military spending. Delivering a line he frequently uses on the campaign trail, Romney noted that the Navy is smaller than at any time since 1917, and that the Air Force is at its smallest since 1947.
Obama said Romney was using an outdated view of how military spending works and where the needs are.
“Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed,” he said. “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
“The question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting slips,” he added.
Both proclaimed that the United States would stand with Israel if the longtime US ally is attacked.
Romney, however, criticized Obama forcefully for going on what he has repeatedly called an “apology tour” to foreign nations.
Obama responded just as forcefully, criticizing Romney by referring to his opponent’s controversial overseas trip this summer. By contrast, Obama said that he had visited troops in Afghanistan when he went abroad as a presidential candidate, something that Romney did not do.
On Afghanistan, both candidates agreed that US troops should withdraw, as planned, by the end of 2014.
“There’s no reason why Americans should die when Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their country,” Obama said. “After a decade of war, it’s time to do some nation-building at home.”
When asked what represents the gravest security threat to the United States, Obama replied that terrorists are the nation’s greatest enemy. Romney said that a nuclear-armed Iran is the dominant threat.
“In nowhere in the world is America’s influence greater than it was four years ago,” Romney said.
Obama disagreed. “The world needs a strong America, and it is stronger now than when I came into office.”
Both reverted several times to speaking about their domestic agendas, with Romney going through his five-point economic plan and Obama reviewing his policies on education.
“Let me get back to foreign policy,” Schieffer said at one point. “I want to try to shift it, because we have heard some of this in previous debates,” he said later.
Obama took the role of aggressor, frequently looking for pointed ways to criticize Romney. He was stern at times, mocking at others, and occasionally condescending.
Romney responded to some of Obama’s more direct barbs by chiding him, seeming to hope that voters would see Obama as combative and himself as the conciliator. “Attacking me is not talking about an agenda,” Romney said.
The 90-minute encounter was the last chance for the candidates to separate themselves before scores of millions of viewers. In the first meeting in Denver three weeks ago, Romney sharply reversed a decline in the polls with a strong display that contrasted with Obama’s lackluster effort.
In the second debate last week, Obama rebounded with an aggressive performance that slowed Romney’s surge in what remains a grinding race where neither man has broken away.
In polling, foreign policy routinely trails domestic issues such as the economy and health care among voters’ concerns, but Monday’s forum handed each man a chance to project a sense of leadership, which could prove pivotal in helping the small remaining bloc of undecided Americans move toward a candidate.
On Monday, a new Quinnipiac University/CBS News poll found that Obama held a seven-point lead on his handling of foreign policy in the key swing state of Ohio.
Nationally, a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday showed Obama leading Romney among likely voters, 49 to 48 percent. The president also had a one-point lead on how he would deal with terrorism, an area where he once enjoyed an 11-point advantage.
Toward the end of the debate, they turned to a back-and-forth over the auto industry bailout, something that does not fall under foreign policy but is a key issue for voters in the critical swing state of Ohio.
“I’m a son of Detroit. My dad was head of a car company,” Romney said. “I would do nothing to hurt the car industry.” He called Obama’s suggestion that he would have agreed to “liquidate” the car companies during the financial crash “the height of silliness.”
At the time, Romney did call for the auto industry to be put through a managed bankruptcy, which is what ultimately happened. But Romney — who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that was headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” — opposed federal loans to the car industry, loans that some economic analysts said were vital at a time when credit was frozen.
“Governor, the people of Detroit don’t forget,” Obama said. “You keep on trying to airbrush history.”
In their closing statements, each man focused on the messages they hope to drive home in the final two weeks.
“We’ve been through tough times, but we always bounce back,” Obama said.
“I’m optimistic about the future,” Romney said.
Romney was scheduled to depart for campaign events Tuesday in Henderson, Nev., and Morrison, Colo. On Wednesday, he will speak in Reno, Nev., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before spending Thursday in Ohio.
The president planned to hold rallies Tuesday in Delray Beach and Dayton, Ohio. On Wednesday, a frenetic tour of swing states will take him to Davenport, Iowa; Las Vegas; and Denver, before journeying to Los Angeles to appear on the “Tonight Show.”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Matt Viser at email@example.com.