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On Oct. 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation’s worst fears in a televised confirmation of the existence of Soviet nuclear weapons.
Fifty years later, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney sat down in an auditorium on the campus of Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., to debate for the last time. The topics of the evening were various threats to national security, particularly the existence of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Bob Schieffer of CBS News, the moderator, referred to the Cuban Missile Crisis as “a sobering reminder” of the dangers the country could potentially face at any time, and provided a platform for both candidates to explain their positions on a region beleaguered by wars and internal violence.
Libya, Syria, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq were mentioned multiple times throughout the evening. Romney spoke first, saying he hopes to see a “complete change in the structure and environment in the Middle East.”
“I congratulate [Obama] on taking out Osama bin Laden, and going after the leadership in al-Qaeda,” Romney said. “But we can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
“I’m glad that you agree that we have been successful,” Obama said in response, “but … your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map, and is not designed to keep Americans safe or build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East.”
He accused Romney of recently calling Russia, not al-Qaeda, “the biggest geopolitical threat facing America,” leading to the one-liner of the night.
“The 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama said. “Because, you know, the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”
But Romney kept his cool. “Attacking me is not talking about how we’re going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East,” he said.
Romney said that in order for the U.S. to successfully achieve what he feels is its responsibility abroad—“promoting the principles of peace”—the country needs to solve its domestic problems. It was a strategic segue for Romney, who has less experience in foreign affairs than Obama and considers his economic platform to be his primary strength.
“Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral [Michael] Mullen said that our debt is the biggest national security threat we face,” Romney said. “We need a strong economy. We need to have, as well, a strong military.”
Obama’s rebuttal questioned how Romney planned to reduce the deficit by prioritizing “$2 trillion [in] military spending that our military is not asking for.” The candidates debated heatedly on their plans for economic prosperity, prompting the moderator to interrupt.
“Let me get back to foreign policy,” Schieffer said.
The conversation finally steered back to its initial subject—the threat of a nuclear weapons in Iran.
Obama cited sanctions that his administration placed on Iran, namely regulating its transport companies and freezing its finances in the United States, as proof of his ability to weaken the potentially dangerous country.
“Their currency has dropped 80 percent,” he said. “Their economy is in shambles. And the reason we did this is because…we cannot afford to have a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world.”
“I would have put [the sanctions] in place earlier,” Romney said. “But it’s good that we have them.”
Romney emphasized that, despite his earlier explanation of increasing financial support of the U.S. Navy, military action in Iran—and other Middle Eastern countries—would be a last resort.
“It is something one would only consider if all of the other avenues had been tried to their full extent,” he said.
But Obama was on the offensive, seizing an opportunity to call Romney a term the Republican’s critics have been using all election season—a flip-flopper.
“I’m pleased that you are now endorsing our policy of applying diplomatic pressure and potentially having bilateral discussions with the Iranians to end their nuclear program,” the president said. “But just a few years ago, you said that’s something you’d never do.”
Obama referred to Romney’s altered positions on Afghanistan and Iraq, saying that Romney was originally against a “timetable” to end American military occupation in Afghanistan, but now supports one. He also recently called for more troops to be sent to Iraq, which is in opposition to his earlier stance against the war.
“I said if I got bin Laden in our sights, I would take that shot, and you said we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man,” Obama said. “You said we should ask Pakistan for permission. And if we had asked Pakistan for permission, we would not have gotten him. And it was worth moving heaven and earth to get him.”
Though he tried, Romney did not have much of a chance to respond, as the time segment for that topic had ended. He did reiterate that under his leadership, all military would leave Afghanistan in 2014, and that Iran was the number one national security threat to the U.S. and therefore his number one foreign policy priority.
He was able to continue to talk about the U.S. economy during the last part of the debate, after Schieffer brought up “the rise of China and future challenges for America.”
Romney said that a partnership, not discord, between the U.S. and China would be possible, but only if the U.S. proved itself economically worthy.
“They look at us and say, ‘Is it a good idea to be with America?,’” he said. “How strong are we going to be? How strong is our economy?”
He continued to criticize Obama’s term with unemployment and national debt statistics. By the time of the closing statements, the topics had completely switched gears, from foreign policy and national security back to the domestic policy platforms both candidates had pushed during their past two debates.
After an intense evening, Schieffer ended things on a lighter note, with a message to the audience.
“I leave you with the words of my mom, who said, ‘Go vote. It’ll make you feel big and strong.’”
Contact CU Independent Breaking News Editor Annie Melton at Anne.email@example.com.