David Espo, Kasie Hunt
BOCA RATON, Fla. — President Barack Obama sharply challenged Mitt Romney on foreign policy in their final campaign debate Monday night, saying, “Every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong.” The Republican coolly responded, “Attacking me is not an agenda” for dealing with a dangerous world.
Romney took the offensive, too. When Obama said the U.S. and its allies have imposed crippling sanctions on Iran to halt nuclear weapons development, the Republican challenger declared the U.S. should have done more. He declared repeatedly, “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran.”
The president and his rival found agreement, as well, as they sat at close quarters 16 days before the end of an impossibly close election campaign. Each stressed unequivocal support for Israel when asked how he would respond if the Jewish state were attacked by Iran.
“If Israel is attacked, we have their back,” said Romney — moments after Obama vowed, “I will stand with Israel if Israel is attacked.”
Both also said they oppose direct U.S. military involvement in the brutal attempt to topple Syrian President Bashir Assad.
The event produced none of the finger-pointing and little of the interrupting that marked their debate last week, when Obama needed a comeback after a listless performance in their first meeting on Oct. 3.
But there was no mistaking the urgency. The two men frequently sniped at one another even on issues where they agree, and reprised their campaign-long disagreements over the economy, energy, education and other domestic issues despite ground rules that stipulated the debate cover international affairs.
Obama and Romney are locked in a close race in national opinion polls. The final debate behind them, both men intend to embark on a final two-week whirlwind of campaigning. The president is slated to speak in six states during a two-day trip that begins Wednesday and includes a night aboard Air force One as it flies from Las Vegas to Tampa. Romney intends to visit two or three states a day.
Already four million ballots have been cast in early voting in more than two dozen states.
On the Middle East, Romney said that despite early hopes, the ouster of despotic regimes in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere over the past year has resulted in a “rising tide of chaos.” He said the president has failed to come up with a coherent policy to grapple with change sweeping the Middle East, and he added ominously that an al-Qaida-like group has taken over northern Mali.
Anticipating one of Obama’s most frequent campaign assertions, Romney said of the man seated nearby, “I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden and taking on the leadership of al-Qaida. But we can’t kill our way out of this. ... We must have a comprehensive strategy.”
Obama said he had ended the war in Iraq, was on a path to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan and has vowed to bring justice to the attackers of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last month — an assault that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
He also jabbed at Romney’s having said during the campaign that Russia is the United States’ No. 1 geopolitical foe.