Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during the debate… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
Mitt Romney touched off one of the most contentious exchanges of the final presidential debate between him and President Obama by accusing the incumbent of projecting weakness in the world and traveling across the Middle East on an “apology tour.”
Responding to a question Monday night from moderator Bob Schieffer on Iran’s nuclear program, Romney said Iran’s leaders first detected weakness when Obama said during a 2008 presidential debate that he would be willing to meet during his first year in office with the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. Romney called them “all the world’s worst actors.”
“I think they looked and thought, well, that's an unusual honor to receive from the president of the United States,” Romney said. “And then the president began what I've called an apology tour of going to nations in the Middle East and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness.”
In addition, Romney said, Obama failed to provide support for protests by Iranian dissidents, leading the mullahs who run the country to conclude that they could keep pushing toward development of nuclear weapons.
“Nothing Gov. Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing,” Obama responded. “This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign.”
While the administration was building an international coalition to tighten sanctions on Iran, he told Romney, “you were still invested in a Chinese state oil company that was doing business with the Iranian oil sector.”
Romney declined to back down.
“Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq,” he said. “And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And, by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations.”
Obama responded by recalling his trip to Israel during the 2008 campaign.
“When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors,” the president said, alluding to Romney’s campaign fundraising this year in Jerusalem.
“I didn't attend fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”
Obama also mentioned his visit to Sderot, an Israeli border town that had been devastated by Hamas missiles fired from the nearby Gaza Strip.
“I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an ‘Iron Dome’ program to stop those missiles,” he said. “So that's how I've used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.”