President Barack Obama accused Mitt Romney of "recklessness" on the foreign-policy front, while the Republican nominee blasted the administration's "weakness" in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, as the candidates for the White House faced off in the last televised duel of the campaign.
The final debate before the Nov. 6 election thrust foreign policy to the fore of an increasingly close contest that has been largely fought on domestic issues – and the candidates managed to reference those concerns abundantly on Monday. But the duel mostly highlighted the sharp tonal, if not substantive, differences between the two leaders in dealing with a rogue Iran, a volatile Arab world and a rising China.
Both candidates sought to appear as strong – but sensible – leaders in a debate in which each accused the other of weakening the country's security. Each sought to address his personal vulnerabilities, with Mr. Obama asserting his intractability toward Iran and Mr. Romney channelling his inner peacenik in the face of accusations of warmongering.
"I congratulate [Mr. Obama] 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." Mr. Romney said. "We're going to have to pursue a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own. We don't want another Iraq. We don't want another Afghanistan."
Mr. Obama shot back: "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."
Noting that Mr. Romney had called Russia the No. 1 "geopolitical threat" to the United States, Mr. Obama added: "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."
The President was by far the more aggressive of the two candidates as he continued to claw his way back from a listless performance in their first encounter on Oct. 3. Mr. Romney sought to appear steadfast but reasonable in order to allay concerns that a Republican White House would be a foreign-policy repeat of the Bush administration.
Mr. Obama said that a weekend report that the United States and Iran had agreed to direct negotiations to avert a military showdown over Iran's nuclear program was "not true." And he added that he would not allow Iran to use negotiations as a stalling tactic.
"The clock is ticking," Mr. Obama said. "We're not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere."
While both candidates pledged to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Mr. Romney went a step further in saying Iran must not be allowed to "develop nuclear capability." He accused Mr. Obama of failing to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Iran "saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength," Mr. Romney charged. "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."
Mr. Obama said "this notion of me apologizing" was "probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign."
The two candidates also sparred over the defence budget. Despite promising to shrink the deficit, Mr. Romney proposes to re-inject savings from winding down the war in Afghanistan back into the military. Mr. Obama wants to apply those savings to cut the deficit and reduce the Pentagon budget. The difference between the two amounts to nearly $1-trillion in defence spending over a decade.
"Our navy is smaller now than any time since 1917," Mr. Romney said. "The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. … That's unacceptable to me."
Mr. Obama countered that "we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military's changed. … And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities."
Mr. Romney also vowed to crack down on China's trade policies.
"I've watched year in and year out as companies have shut down and people have lost their jobs because China has not played by the same rules, in part by holding down artificially the value of their currency," Mr. Romney said. "That's got to end."
Mr. Obama, referring to his rival's career as a private-equity executive, countered: "You are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas, because you invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas."
While foreign policy has been seen as Mr. Obama's strong suit, particularly in the wake of the killing of Mr. bin Laden, last month's murderous attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya raised the spectre of a resurgent terrorist threat in the Arab world.
Mr. Romney accused the President of mishandling the Arab Spring: "You look at the record of the last four years and say: 'Is Iran closer to a bomb?' Yes. 'Is the Middle East in tumult?' Yes. 'Is al-Qaeda on the run, on its heels?' No."
The Obama campaign launched a television ad Monday saying the President has a "responsible plan" for pulling out of Afghanistan and accusing Mr. Romney of calling that plan a "mistake."
But in Monday's debate, Mr. Romney changed his tune: "When I'm president, we'll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014."
Best zinger (Mitt Romney about al-Qaeda):
"It's certainly not on the run. It's certainly not in hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries."
Best zinger (Barack Obama about Mr. Romney):
"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."
Most memorable mangling (Mr. Romney):
"When the – when the – the president of Iraq – excuse me – of Iran, Ahmadinejad, says that our debt makes us not a great country, that's a frightening thing."
Loveliest gratuitously mean line (Mr. Obama):
"Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets. … We have these things called aircraft carriers. This isn't a game of Battleship."