WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney faced off in Boca Raton, Florida, Monday, for the third and final presidential debate, ahead of the November 6 elections.
The third debate, held in Lynn University, focused on foreign policy. It will be moderated by Bob Schieffer, host of Face the Nation on CBS; and consisted of topics divided into six segments of approximately 15 minutes each.
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Iran, Israel and Libya took center stage at the debate, as the two candidates sparred over the attack on US diplomats in Benghazi, Libya and the US' differences with Israel over the Palestinian issue and the need to set a red line for Iran's nuclear program; as well as America's role in the world, the changing Middle East, the new face of terrorism, the situation in Syria, the war in Afghanistan and China's growing role in the international arena.
As expected, the Iranian nuclear threat and Israel's demand for a clear red line were widely debated. Both Obama and Romney agreed that a nuclear Iran was "unacceptable" with each pledging his administration will stand by Israel in case of an attack.
"First of all, Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel," Obama declared.
"I've made that clear throughout my presidency. I will stand with Israel if they are attacked. And this is the reason why, working with Israel, we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history. But to the issue of Iran, as long as I'm president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon."
The US, he continued, "Has organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy… And the reason we did this is because a nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security and it's threat to Israel's national security.
Facing off. Obama and Romney (Photo: Reuters)
"We cannot afford to have a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world. Iran's a state sponsor of terrorism, and for them to be able to provide nuclear technology to nonstate actors – that's unacceptable. And they have said that they want to see Israel wiped off the map.
So the work that we've done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we're not going to take any options off the table."
'Indict Ahmadinejad for inciting genocide'
Romney countered: "First of all, 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. That's number one.
"Number two, with regards to the threat of Iran, there's no question but that a nuclear Iran, a nuclear-capable Iran, is unacceptable to America. It presents a threat not only to our friends, but ultimately a threat to us to have Iran have nuclear material, nuclear weapons that could be used against us or used to be threatening to us."
"It is essential for the US, he continued, "To understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means. And crippling sanctions are something I'd called for five years… It's absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions. I'd have put them in place earlier, but it's good that we have them."
Romney continued: "I'd take on diplomatic isolation efforts. I'd make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it.
"We need to increase pressure time and time again on Iran because anything other than a solution which stops this nuclear folly of theirs is unacceptable to America.
"And of course, a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been had been tried to their full extent."
'The clock is ticking'
Obama denied again the reports suggesting that Washington has been holding back-channel talks with Tehran.
"Our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the UN resolutions that have been in place, because they have the opportunity to re-enter the community of nations, and we would welcome that… But the deal we'll accept is, they end their nuclear program. It's very straightforward.
"And one last thing, just to make this point: The clock is ticking. We're not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere."
"We're going to make sure that if they do not meet the demands of the international community, then we are going to take all options necessary to make sure they don't have a nuclear weapon."
One of the challenges the US has had with Iran, Romney said, "Is that they have looked at this administration and feel it's as not as strong as it needed to be."
"(…) And then the president began what I've called an apology tour of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness.
"And I think that when the president said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel that they noticed that as well.
"All of these things suggested, I think, to the Iranian mullahs that, hey, you know, we can keep on pushing along here; we can keep talks going on, but we're just going to keep on spinning centrifuges. Now there are some 10,000 centrifuges spinning uranium, preparing to create a nuclear threat to the United States and to the world. That's unacceptable for us.
"They must not develop nuclear capability. And the way to make sure they understand that is by having from the very beginning the tightest sanctions possible."
'Mideast changes concerning'
Prior to speaking of Iran, the debate focused on the changes in the Middle East.
"This is obviously an area of great concern to the entire world, and to America in particular, a complete change in the structure of the Middle East," Romney said. "With the Arab Spring, came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation. But instead, we’ve seen in nation after nation, a number of disturbing events.
"Of course the greatest threat of all is Iran, four years closer to a nuclear weapon. 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." Romney said his foreign policy regarding extremism "is pretty straight forward – go after the bad guys."
Obama countered: "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've refocused our attention on those who actually killed us on 9/11. And as a consequence, al-Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated.
"(…) 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. You've got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean.
"Now, it is absolutely true that we cannot just beat these challenges militarily, and so what I've done throughout my presidency and will continue to do, is, number one, make sure that these countries are supporting our counterterrorism efforts; number two, make sure that they are standing by our interests in Israel's security, because it is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.
"Number three, we do have to make sure that we're protecting religious minorities and women because these countries can't develop unless all the population is developing. Number four, we do have to develop their economic; but number five, the other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can't continue to do nation building in these regions."
'Assad must go'
Turning their attention to Syria, both Romney and Obama agreed that President Bashar Assad's regime must end, but differed on the role the US should take in the process.
"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," Obama said.
"But ultimately, 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… I am confident that Assad's days are numbered."
Romney said that Syria is "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 Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us… We don't want to have military involvement there. We don't want to get drawn into a military conflict."
Romney emerged as the winner of the first presidential debate, while Obama had the upper hand in the second debate. The vice-presidential debate between acting VP Joe Biden and Romney's running mate Congressman Paul Ryan was largely viewed as a tie.
Neither Obama nor Romney have been able to create a substantial lead in the crucial swing states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The 2012 presidential race has been one of the closets seen in the United States in decades. Recent polls indicate both candidates are tied at 47% among likely voters.
Sharon Gilad contributed to this report
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