President Obama shakes hands with Republican presidential candidate… (Joe Raedle / Getty Images )
President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney agreed on foreign policy at least as often as they clashed in their final presidential debate, but on one critical question — what is the greatest foreign threat facing the United States? — they sharply differed.
“Well, I think it will continue to be the terrorist networks,” Obama said in response to that question. “We have to remain vigilant.”
Romney, however, singled out a nuclear-armed Iran.
The question came Monday night after the candidates agreed, with some quibbles, on major areas of foreign policy, including the use of sanctions against Iran, the unwillingness of the United States to intervene militarily in Syria, the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists, the need for Hosni Mubarak to have stepped down as president of Egypt, the importance of Israel as an ally — and more.
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The two didn't engage in any back-and-forth over the nation's biggest threat, so their answers stood for themselves. However, earlier in the debate, Romney defended himself against criticism over a remark he had made earlier in the year that Russia was the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” facing the United States. That remark drew criticism and no small amount of ridicule from Democrats, including Obama.
At the debate, Romney stressed the word “geopolitical.” “It's a geopolitical foe,” he said. “And I said in the same — in the same paragraph, I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or [Russian President Vladimir Putin], and I'm certainly not going to say to him, I'll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election he'll get more backbone.”
During a security summit in Korea in March, President Obama was caught telling Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” to negotiate a deal on missile defense after the election.
In his debate response, Obama immediately named terrorist networks, which have been a major focus of his administration, Obama went on to talk about China being both “an adversary but also a potential partner,” and talked about what he has done to counter China in international trade cases, despite Romney's frequent criticism of him for being too lax.
“That's the reason why we have brought more cases against China for violating trade rules than the other — the previous administration had done in two terms,” he said, referring to the administration of President George W. Bush. “And we've won just about every case that we've filed.”
The president did not cite it by name but appeared to be referring to the World Trade Organization. In September, the administration filed a complaint with the agency, alleging that China was illegally subsidizing exports of automobiles and auto parts. That same day Beijing filed its own WTO complaint, challenging anti-dumping duties that Washington had levied on $7.2 billion in goods from China that the U.S. said were sold here below cost.
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Romney, however, said, "The greatest threat that the world faces, the greatest national security threat, is a nuclear Iran.” Obama had spoken at length about Iran earlier, but did not name it among the greatest threats. Romney immediately pivoted to the same place Obama went: China.
“Let's talk about China, “he said. “We can be a partner with China. We don't have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they're willing to be responsible.” But, returning to an issue he mentions in almost every speech, Romney said that China was manipulating its currency on the international market and he would declare it a manipulator “on day one.”