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Third and Final Presidential Debate

October 23rd, 2012

Altered image of President Obama and Mitt Romney via Flickr user DonkeyHotey/CC

The third and final presidential debate took place last night between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. The theme was foreign policy — what the U.S. does in the world and how it relates with other countries. The debate was held in Boca Raton, Florida.

The election is just two weeks away and it was the last time that Americans could compare the candidates side-by-side as they reacted to questions … and to each other.

Most polls heading into the debate said the two campaigns are tied.

So, how’d they do last night? And did anyone win?

A sitting president, or incumbent, generally has the advantage going into a foreign policy debate, and that was true last night. President Obama has four years of firsthand experience dealing with all the problems and countries that came up during the debate. At one point President Obama derided Mr. Romney saying that foreign policy was much more than “a game of battleship,” referring to the popular children’s game you probably know. Though Mr. Romney held his own.

Foreign policy is important in a U.S. presidential election because the U.S. is widely seen as the most powerful and influential country on the planet. And the president of the U.S. is often referred to as the “leader of the free world.” So voters are not just voting for leadership at home, but an important world leader.

However, only 10% of Americans who were polled said foreign policy mattered to them when choosing a president.

What is important? Americans said their own daily life, or domestic policy. Good jobs for adults, good schools for kids, good and affordable medical care if you’re sick, and a bit of extra spending money in your pocket at the end of the day.

Both President Obama and Governor Romney tied domestic policy into their foreign policy discussion. They said that in order to be respected around the world, the U.S. needs to be respected for what it is doing at home — and that includes having a strong economy.

Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama have very different ideas on how to accomplish their domestic policies. But they had more similarities in their foreign policies, which was largely focused on the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia.

Green circle is Middle East and general region of world the third debate focused on.

President Obama highlighted his foreign policy accomplishments from the past four years, many also from that region of the world. He said they included:

— Overseeing the pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden , the world’s number one terrorist who was responsible for the September 11th tragedies.

— Helping end the U.S. war in Iraq as he promised four years ago. The president that preceded Obama, George W. Bush, started that war. President Bush’s original thinking was that Iraq may have been involved in the September 11th attacks while coming close to obtaining weapons for mass destruction. It turned out that neither was the case.

— And President Obama is winding down the U.S. war in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda, had its base in 2001. The U.S. is still there to help stabilize Afghanistan so that it can successfully defend itself from enemies inside its own country. According to President Obama, the U.S. is now scheduled to remove its military in 2014.

— He also helped get rid of a long-standing dictator in Libya, Colonel Muammar el-Qadaffi , who treated Libya’s citizens terribly for over 40 years.

Middle East and surrounding area. Image credit:

So, what about the next four years? Some of the places that came up last night were:

Iran. The government is developing a nuclear weapon. The U.S. and its allies do not want Iran to have one. President Obama said, “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.” Mitt Romney said that because President Obama hasn’t been forceful enough with Iran, in his opinion, “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran.”

China. It is a huge country with over a billion people and a very fast growing economy. Our relationship is a bit tricky and uncertain with the Chinese government. And the U.S. is working out how friendly or competitive it will be — ally or adversary. Both candidates recognize the importance of the U.S.-China relationship especially because of the economic ties between them.

The Middle East. Many countries in the Middle East had citizen protests against their governments a couple of years ago. It’s often referred to as the Arab Awakening.  The U.S. was, and is, closely monitoring these changes and sees a chance for those countries to become more democratic. Egypt , with a huge population of 80 million people, for example, recently had its first free elections. But when a country goes through big transitions like that, it is also a time of instability. And that can be troublesome.

Syria . Syria was part of the Arab Awakening , but instead of producing free elections and a new government, Syria’s government responded with incredible violence. According to reports, 30,000 Syrians have died so far, many of them children and women. 300,000 more Syrians have left to find safety in neighboring countries (become refugees). The question is how involved, if at all, should the U.S. government be in ending the violence? And how long can the U.S. stand-by and watch the killings occur while the region becomes more unstable? Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama both said they support finding ways to help those who are fighting against the government.

Israel. Israel is a small country of approximately 8 million people … but in terms of foreign policy it is an important and longstanding ally (friend) of the U.S.  It’s a complicated and controversial relationship but both President Obama and Governor Romney, when asked yesterday by the debate moderator Bob Schieffer, said that they would consider an attack on Israel the same as an attack on the United States.

In the end, Mr. Romney applauded Mr. Obama for making tough decisions that brought justice to Osama bin Laden but added that, “We can not kill our way out of this mess.” But Mr. Romney also said that he would like to make the U.S. military bigger.

President Obama pointed out that the U.S. already has the biggest military in the world and spends more on its military than the next ten countries combined.  He also said that his top priority is to keep the U.S. safe, but his policy is guided by having the right capabilities more than simply acquiring more ships and planes, including planning for better cyber-security.

NBC’s analyst Tom Brokaw may have summed up the evening’s topic best by saying, “It’s a complex world with complex issues.”

Did you watch? Do you know who you would vote for? How important is foreign policy to you? 

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