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election 2012:

Foreign policy debate yields similarities amid the sparring

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Pool-Rick Wilking / AP

President Barack Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.

Updated Monday, Oct. 22, 2012 | 10 p.m.

Presidential Debate: Monday, Oct. 22, 2012

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. Launch slideshow »

President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney met Monday night for the last of three nationally televised debates — offering their closing arguments in what is promising to be a fight-to-the-finish election season.

The candidates traded several tongue lashings about where they believed the other had or would have undermined America on a global stage. But the sharply worded exchanges actually revealed more about where the two men agree on foreign policy than where they differ.

The similarities started when the two men shared their visions of what America’s role is in the world.

“America must lead. And for that to happen we have to strengthen the American economy here at home,” Romney said.

“America remains the one indispensable nation,” Obama said, arguing that America is stronger now than when he came into office. "It’s very hard for us to project leadership around the world when we’re not doing what we need to (at home).”

Next, they took on the most critical foreign policy challenge of the moment: Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapon. But again, they agreed more than they disagreed.

“It’s essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means,” Romney said, stressing that the United States had to stage a “credible” military threat to Iran but pledging to “tighten” sanctions.

“Crippling sanctions are something I’d called for five years ago,” Romney said.

Obama took the opportunity to ridicule Romney for restating his own administration’s policy toward Iran.

“Our goal is to get Iran to realize it needs to give up its nuclear program,” Obama said, before taking a swipe at Romney. “You’d do the same things we did, but you’d say it louder and somehow that would make a difference?”

And that was the rub of this debate, as the candidates bickered around the margins of most global issues, disagreeing on nuance but not on the core substance of how the United States ought to approach its foreign policy challenges in a time of dramatic global changes.

The debate focused heavily on matters concerning the greater Middle East, from the Israel-Iran crisis to a comparison of U.S. policy in Libya, where the U.S. led a coalition that helped to topple a dictator, and Syria, where a civil conflict over a dictator’s tenure has begun to spill across the border.

It was on this latter topic that they traded some of their best jabs.

“The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama told Romney after he criticized the Obama administration’s approach to the uprisings, and their aftermath, in the Middle East. “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.”

“Attacking me is not an agenda,” Romney calmly retorted.

Romney spent much of the debate trying to assume the role of peacemaker in his approach to both Obama and to the world’s problems.

“I’m optimistic about the future. I want to see growing peace in this country,” Romney said in his closing argument.

At times, the tactic made him seem downright dovish in comparison to the president.

When Obama described China as both “a potential partner” and “an adversary” Romney leapt on the terminology, coming back to correct the president with a softer tone toward China.

“We can be a partner with China,” Romney said. “We don't have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form.”

That was surprising, given Romney has spent most of the campaign saying the president needed to get tougher on China.

When Obama said he was proud of having acted alone in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, despite having upset the Pakistanis in the process, Romney advised him that “it’s not time to divorce a nation on earth that has a hundred nuclear weapons and is on the way to double that at some point.”

The remark was notable in light of the fact that some Republican lawmakers are advocating cutting off Pakistan’s foreign aid over the soured relationship.

“I congratulate (Obama) on taking on Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership of al-Qaida,” Romney also said during the debate, surmising that it was “the right thing to do.”

“But we can’t kill our way out of this mess,” he added.

It was almost as if Romney had heard the Obama campaign’s presumptions about his foreign policy, which one top Obama adviser described to the Sun as “more sabre-rattling than Bush,” and Obama described during Monday’s debate as “wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map.”

Romney even tried to admonish the president for not doing enough to strengthen America’s relationships with its allies and build relationships with the new pro-democracy players in Iran and the Middle East.

“We are playing the leadership role,” Obama said, with a hint of exasperation. “We organized the Friends of Syria, we are mobilizing humanitarian support and support for the opposition.

“It’s because we got everybody to agree that Iran is seeing so much pressure [to give up ambitions for a nuclear weapon],” Obama added later. “And we’ve got to maintain that pressure.”

The candidates never ran out of words to express their surface-level disagreement on the various foreign policy issues. But at several points, the candidates appeared to tire of the topic of the night.

Thirty-two minutes in, Obama made the first move away from foreign policy, pivoting from his assertion that America is strongest abroad when it is strong at home to start talking about clean energy, his Buffett-rule based tax plan, and education instead.

Romney happily followed suit, talking about small businesses, his time as governor of Massachusetts, and his disdain for Obama’s health care law.

They argued over the Detroit auto industry bailout as well.

Eventually, moderator Bob Schieffer yanked the conversation back to foreign policy via a discussion of the budget and scheduled cuts to the Defense Department, known as sequestration.

Sequestration is one of the most partisan, divisive issue plaguing Congress, save for perhaps the more philosophical split the parties have over how to reform the tax code.

But even here, the candidates were at a loss to tap into any deeply substantive disagreement.

“I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars,” Romney said.

“[The sequester] is something Congress has proposed,” Obama said, deflecting Romney’s finger-pointing. “It will not happen.”

The candidates’ tendency to agree as they argued rendered this debate a less-than-ideal showing for undecided voters in search of a watershed moment to make up their minds. Wooing those voters remains an all-important task for both candidates: An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released the day before the debate showed Obama and Romney tied, each with 47 percent of the vote.

But — at least on the national stage — the election ends here nonetheless. From this point forward, the candidates will pound the pavement — including the streets of Las Vegas and Henderson in the next few days — but they will not have another opportunity to address each other or the entire country through a similar televised forum again.

Here are the final words they chose to leave voters with:

“We’ve been through tough times but we always bounce back because of our character, because we pull together,” Obama said. “If I have the privilege of being your president for another four years, I promise you I will always listen to your voices, I will fight for your families and I will work every single day to make sure that America continues to be the greatest nation on earth.”

“We need strong leadership. I’d like to be that leader, with your support. I’ll work with you. I’ll lead you in an open and honest way. And I ask for your vote,” said Romney, who won a coin toss for the opportunity to speak last. “I’d like to be the next president of the United States to support and help this great nation, and to make sure that we all together maintain America as the hope of the earth.”

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