US Presidential election: Obama edges final debate
An aggressive Barack Obama attacked Mitt Romney’s foreign policy credentials in the final debate of the US presidential campaign last night, accusing the Republican challenger of a diplomatic strategy that was “all over the map”.
• Obama in attack mode and Romney passive as candidates clash over foreign policy
• Obama judged to have won debate but analysts say outcome unlikely to affect election result
The president delivered a robust defence of his own policies towards Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and China, and denounced his White House rival for claiming that Russia was the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States.
“The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” he said.
In return, Mr Romney criticised Mr Obama for “weakness” overseas that he said had allowed Iran to move four years closer to possession of a nuclear weapon, and if elected promised to reverse the president’s promised defence cuts that he claims would diminish the US military and make “our future less certain and less secure”.
Opinion polls suggested that Mr Obama had the better of the encounter, at Lynn University, Boca Raton, Florida, largest of the swing states crucial to the outcome of the November 6 election.
A nationwide survey of registered voters conducted by CNN revealed Mr Obama was thought to have done a better job by 48 to 46 per cent.
But whether that translates into extra votes for the Democratic Party incumbent in a tied race remains to be seen. Half the respondents in the same poll said the debate would have no impact on their vote with the influence on the remainder an even split.
“On a foreign policy debate like this there’s no one winner,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W Bush, now a political analyst for CNN.
“You could say the president won on points, he was more aggressive. But this is about winning elections, and in that sense it’s not about winning the debate.”
The event lacked the fierce and testy exchanges that marked the second head-to-head in New York a week ago when the candidates clashed repeatedly over tax cuts, the economy and Libya.
Instead, Mr Romney conceded that the president had been right in several key areas of foreign policy, namely the imposition of sanctions on Iran, no military intervention in Syria and the decision to “move heaven and earth” to get Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. He was killed last year by US special forces in Pakistan.
“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 comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism.”
Mr Romney’s passive demeanour, far removed from his combative approach to the first debate earlier this month in Denver, was a deliberate strategy to appear more statesmanlike, some analysts believe.
“It was a conscious decision by the Romney camp who didn’t want this to evolve into some kind of street fight,” James McHugh, professor of political science at Ohio’s University of Akron and a University of Edinburgh graduate, told The Scotsman.
“He didn’t want to take the chance of not being seen as presidential calibre. He has made some mistakes in foreign policy speeches in terms of perception and his advisers will have told him that disagreeing with the president on foreign policy is not a vote winner.
“The president won the debate, but that’s no surprise for an incumbent who is able to talk from experience. He has had a successful foreign policy for the most part and that gives him an advantage.”
Mr Obama seized on his rival’s inexperience as he addressed policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, pointing out perceived shifts in Mr Romney’s views.
“I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong,” Mr Obama said.
“You said we should have gone into Iraq, despite that fact there were no weapons of mass destruction. You said we should still have troops in Iraq to this day. You indicated that we shouldn’t be passing nuclear treaties with Russia despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it.
“You said that, first, we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan. Then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong, but you were also confusing in sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies.”
Mr Romney, meanwhile, said Mr Obama had been impotent against a growing number of global threats.
“I see Iran four years closer to a bomb. I see the Middle East with a rising tide of violence, chaos, tumult. I see jihadists,” he said.
“I see Syria with 30,000 civilians dead, Assad still in power. I see our trade deficit with China growing larger every year. I don’t feel you see North Korea continuing to export their nuclear technology, Russia backing away from a nuclear proliferation treaty we had with them.
“I look around the world, I see our influence receding, in part because of the failure of the president to deal with our economic challenges at home, in part because of our withdrawal from our commitment to our military in the way I think it ought to be.”
Mr Romney said that a $1 trillion cut to the defence budget would leave the US navy with its lowest number of ships since 1917 but Mr Obama said the reduction in armed forces was what military chiefs had asked for.
“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. And so the question is not a game of Battleships, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”
They did agree, however, that neither would let Iran gain a nuclear weapon and that both would stand by Israel if it came under attack.
The candidates now embark on a hectic final 14 days of campaigning. According to the most recent national tracking poll by analysts Real Clear Politics, Mr Romney holds a 0.4 per cent advantage in the popular vote, 47.6 to 47.2 per cent.
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