Obama, Romney Clash on Middle East, Support Israel
“The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” was President Barack Obama’s first attack on his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, at Monday night’s third and final fiery presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida.
Obama vowed that Iran would not develop nuclear weapons so long as he is president and pledged full support to Israel, as he faced scathing criticism from Romney. Both candidates expressed their support for the Jewish State, but clashed over the extent of Obama's support for the United States' closest ally, a subject on whch Obama has been strongly criticized, especially by Israelis.
“As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” he said. “Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel. I've made that clear throughout my presidency.”
Obama denied a weekend report in The New York Times that the United States and Iran were prepared for one-on-one talks over the country’s nuclear program after the election.
“Those are reports in the newspaper. They are not true," Obama said, adding that Iran was increasingly isolated due to international sanctions.
Romney accused Obama of failing to stop progress in Tehran's nuclear program, saying that Obama was right in imposing tough sanctions on the Islamic Republic, but that they were not enough.
“It is absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions. I'd have put them in place earlier, but it is good that we have them," Romney said. “Something I'd add today, I would tighten those sanctions.”
He accused, “I see Iran four years closer to a bomb. I don't see our influence growing around the world; I see our influence receding.
“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. That's number one,” promised Romney.
Romney accused Obama of going on an “apology tour” throughout the Middle East after he was elected, but leaving Israel out of that trip, a fact applauded by the Arab world. He attacked Obama's obsequiousnes towards the Muslim world.
Obama fired back by saying, “When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the -- the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.
“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas,” he added. “And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of -- of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that's how I've used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.”
Romney, who emphasized his own close friendship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, noted that “my relationship with the prime minister of Israel is such that we would not get a call saying our bombers are on the way or their fighters are on the way. This is the kind of thing that would have been discussed and thoroughly evaluated well before that kind of action.” It is well known that Obama does not like Netanyahu, would not meet with him on the Israeli PM's last trip to the United States and was overheard complaining about him when talking to former President Sarkozy of France.
The debate, which focused on issues of foreign policy, had started with a discussion on the changes in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring, which has seen a shift to radical Islamism and continued violence.
“With the Arab Spring came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women and — and public life and in economic life in the Middle East,” said Romney, alluding to Obama's interpretation of the events which did not prove itself as true. “But instead we’ve seen in nation after nation a number of disturbing events. Of course, we see in Syria 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in Libya an attack apparently by — well, I think we know now by terrorists of some kind against — against our people there, four people dead.
“And so what we’re seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region,” he said. “Of course, the greatest threat of all is Iran, four years closer to a nuclear weapon. And — and we’re going to have to recognize that we have to do as the president has done. I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaeda. But we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism which is — it’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”
Obama responded by saying, “My first job as commander in chief is to keep the American people safe, and that’s what we’ve done over the last four years. We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on those who actually killed us on 9/11. And as a consequence, al-Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated.
“In addition, we’re now able to transition out of Afghanistan in a responsible way, making sure that Afghans take responsibility for their own security, and that allows us also to rebuild alliances and make friends around the world to combat future threats,” he added. “Now, with respect to Libya, as I indicated in the last debate, when we received that phone call, I immediately made sure that, number one, we did everything we could to secure those Americans who were still in harm’s way; number two, that we would investigate exactly what happened; and number three, most importantly, that we would go after those who killed Americans, and we would bring them to justice, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
Obama told Romney that “I'm glad that you recognize that al-Qaeda's a threat because a few months ago when you were asked, what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia -- not al-Qaeda, you said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years.
“But, Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s. You say that you're not interested in duplicating what happened in Iraq, but just a few weeks ago you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now,” Obama fired at his rival.
“You've said that first we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan then you said we should,” he continued. “Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong but you were also confusing and sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies.
“So what -- what we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map. And unfortunately, that's the kind of opinions that you've offered throughout this campaign, and it is not a recipe for American strength or keeping America safe over the long term,” said Obama.
Romney retorted that he had certainly indicated Russia is “a geopolitical foe. And I said in the same paragraph, I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the UN time and time again. 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 [Obama was overheard saying just that, ed.]. After the election he'll get more backbone.”
Regarding Syria, and its continued bloody civil war, Obama said, “What we've done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go. We've mobilized sanctions against that government. We have made sure that they are isolated. We have provided humanitarian assistance, and we are helping the opposition organize, and we're particularly interested in making sure that we're mobilizing the moderate forces inside of Syria.
“But ultimately,” added Obama, who took an active role in Egypt and Libya, “Syrians are going to have to determine their own future. And so everything we're doing, we're doing in consultation with our partners in the region, including Israel, which obviously has a huge interest in seeing what happens in Syria, coordinating with Turkey and other countries in the region that have a great interest in this.”
Romney pointed out that “Syria's an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea. It's the route for them to arm Hizbullah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a -- a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don't want to have military involvement there. We don't want to get drawn into a military conflict.”
Obama, who was asked by the host if he has any regrets about calling on former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an American ally, to step down early during the revolution, now that Egypt is governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, responded, “No, I don't because I think that America has to stand with democracy. The notion that we would have tanks run over those young people who were in Tahrir Square, that is not the kind of American leadership that John F. Kennedy talked about 50 years ago.
“But what I've also said is that now that you have a democratically elected government in Egypt, that they have to make sure that they take responsibility for protecting religious minorities -- and we have put significant pressure on them to make sure they're doing that -- to recognize the rights of women, which is critical throughout the region,” he added. “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, while agreeing that Mubarak was a dictator, added, “I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president's term and even further back than that, that we'd have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world and that we would have worked more aggressively with our -- our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form of government such that it didn't explode in the way it did.”
According to leading pundit Charles Krauthammer on Fox News, Romney won the debate, showing competence, presidential presence and knowledge, while Obama kept interrupting him and pettily attacking him.