Obama was unforgiving, even though Romney agreed with him again and again, says Aziz Haniffa
In their third and final showdown -- one devoted completely to foreign policy which at times veered towards the topics of economy, jobs and even education -- United States President Barack Obama was the unanimous winner on points in the third debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, dominating the entire debate like Muhammad Ali did in his third fight with Joe Frazier.
Obama went on the offensive as soon as moderator Bob Schieffer, a venerable elder statesman of CBS News correspondents, rang the first bell. He was clearly the aggressor, looking for a knock-out with a series of incessant jabs that couldn't floor Romney but certainly left the challenger shaken and groggy.
After the third of their bruising battles, the last two of which Ali won convincingly, Frazier never recovered.
But in the Obama-Romney debate on November 6, despite a scientific CNN poll of registered voters scoring it 48 to 40 for Obama, this clash was certainly heading for a photo-finish, with the debate results unlikely to change the overall polling numbers of 47 percent each among likely voters, notwithstanding Obama stepping into the fight with a 46 to 38 percent foreign policy advantage over Romney.
Obama clearly provided even more red meat to his base, as he had done in the second debate after his listless performance in the first debate, which Romney won overwhelmingly. The first debate was a game-changer to the extent that it put Romney back in the race after trailing Obama by several percentage points beyond the margin of error, particularly in the key battleground states.
Romney did something that probably worried the Republican base, particularly the neo-conservatives as 17 of his 24 foreign policy advisers are from the very George W Bush team that dragged the country into war with Iraq.
As James Carville -- who was President Clinton's campaign manager -- pointed out, Romney seemingly came to agree more with Obama than disagree.
There were rhetorical flourishes on Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, Libya and even to a certain extent on China.
When his neo-conservative advisers expected him to come with a baseball bat and bludgeon Obama on the Benghazi fiasco -- where the administration couldn't get its story straight for weeks in spite of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans being killed -- Romney didn't even mention the incident.
The Benghazi violence has, for the past few weeks, been fodder for the salivating Republicans who wanted to use this to neutralise Obama's foreign policy successes, particularly the killing of Osama bin Laden and the administration's claim that Al Qaeda had been decimated.
The consensus among the analysts and Monday morning quarterbacks -- with which I agree -- was that Romney's modus operandi was tactical. He obviously didn't want to be perceived as a war-monger, a bomb-thrower and a muscular Republican in the George W Bush mould, which Obama and the Democrats wanted to define him as.
Consequently, with this strategy, he came off looking presidential. Far from a right wing candidate, he seemed to move so much to the centre, almost like a peace candidate!
David Gergen, who has served six presidents and is now with the Kennedy School of Government and is also a CNN analyst, said, "I think Mitt Romney did something that's extremely important to his campaign tonight -- and that was, he passed the commander-in-chief test."
In one of the most memorable manifestations of coming at Obama from the Left, after declaring that "the greatest threat of all is Iran," and that Teheran is "four years closer to a nuclear weapon," Romney congratulated Obama on "taking out Osama bin Laden, and going after the leadership of Al Qaeda."
"But we can't kill our way out of this mess," he added.
Carville, in the post-debate post-mortem quipped, "Obviously the President came to attack, Governor Romney came to agree. It seemed like somebody gave the same drug to him that they gave the President before the first debate."
"He was trying to run the clock out, he agreed with him, I don't know how many times," Carville added.
There was no doubt that the more moderate Republicans, like former Bush spokesman, CNN analyst and adviser to Romney Ari Fleischer agreed that Obama was the undisputed winner and weakly argued that "I don't think this debate is going to change a thing about the trajectory of this race."
He said, "The first debate said it all, and this debate won't stop it. Mitt Romney has got the momentum."
Charles Krauthammer, the high priest of conservative columnists and the GOP-leaning Fox News Network commentator, in clear contrast to the acknowledgment by the majority of Republicans who said Obama won, asserted, "Its unequivocal -- Romney won. And, he didn't just win tactically, but strategically."
"Strategically, all he needed to do was basically a draw. He needed to continue the momentum he has had since the first debate and this will continue it," he said.
Krauthammer, who accused Obama of launching petty personal attacks while Romney took the high road, argued, "Romney made a strategic decision not to go after the President on Libya or Syria or other areas, where Obama could accuse him of being a Bush-like warmonger."
The first half of the debate was a yawn, with both candidates trying to score points by circumventing the foreign policy questions into differences about how each one would deal with the economy, the debts and jobs, reiterating the same spiel that viewers and voters had heard a million times.
But when Schieffer managed to bring the encounter back into the foreign policy realm, Obama was quite brutal with his jabs.
When Romney alleged that the administration would weaken the military and that -- in repeating a constant refrain of his -- said the US Navy today had fewer ships than it did in 1916.
With sarcasm dripping from every pore, Obama ridiculed his challenger, saying, "I don't think Governor Romney has spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the navy for example and that we have fewer ships and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916."
"But governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go under water -- nuclear submarines."
Obama certainly had the advantage of being the incumbent President and having access to comprehensive and detailed foreign policy briefings. But Romney seemed to have crammed up as much as he could and when the issue of Pakistan came up, he threw up the threat of the Haqqani Network and also mentioned the Inter Services Intelligence's perfidy.
He was responding the Obama's swipe that the US would never have killed bin Laden if it had to seek permission from Pakistan, as Romney had suggested at one time.
"If we had asked Pakistan for permission, we would not have gotten him. And it was worth moving heaven and earth to get him," he said.
Rubbing it in, Obama said, "When it comes to going after Osama bin Laden, you said, well, any President would make that call. But when you were a candidate in 2008 -- as I was -- and I said, if I got bin Laden in our sights, I would take that shot, you said we shouldn't move heaven and earth to get one man, and you said we should ask Pakistan for permission."
Romney once again acquiesced, saying, "I don't blame the administration for the fact that the relationship with Pakistan is strained. We had to go into Pakistan; we had to go in there to get Osama bin Laden. That was the right thing to do."
But he warned that divorcing Pakistan would be counter-productive, particularly as it was a nation with over 100 nuclear weapons.
"No, 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, a nation that has serious threats from terrorist groups within its nation like the Taliban, the Haqqani Network. It's a nation that's not like others and that does not have a civilian leadership that is calling the shots there," he said.
"Pakistan is important to the region, to the world and to us, because Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads, and they are rushing to build a lot more. They will have more than Great Britain sometime in the relatively near future," Romney said.
He reiterated, "They also have the Haqqani Network and Taliban existent within their country. And so a Pakistan that falls apart and becomes a failed state would be of extraordinary danger to Afghanistan and to us. So we are going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a more stable government and rebuild a relationship with us. And that means that our aid that we provide to Pakistan is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met."
Romney said the ISI is "is probably the most powerful" wing of the Pakistani military now. "This is a nation which if it falls apart -- if it becomes a failed state, there are nuclear weapons there and you have got terrorists there who could grab their hands onto those nuclear weapons."
"This is an important part of the world for us. Pakistan is technically an ally, and they are not acting very much like an ally right now, but we have some work to do," Romney said, and quickly added that the US needs to work with Pakistan, but at the same time its aid to Islamabad should be based on certain conditions.
But Obama was unforgiving, even though Romney had agreed with him, noting again, "And you said we should ask Pakistan for permission (for Osama operation). 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."
Both protagonists were also playing to the various communities in battleground states like Florida and Ohio, particularly in terms of the electoral college that would help put them over the 271 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
Romney, cognisant of the Jewish vote in Florida, said, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad should be indicted presumably for war crimes and tried under the Genocide Act, even though it could be argued that the Iranian leader could have gotten away with his rhetoric, however disgusting in the eyes of many in the US, under the First Amendment of Freedom of Expression.
Obama, for his part, slammed Romney for opposing the auto bailout. With workers in mind, he said that if Romney had his way, he would have let all the US auto manufacturers fail and the US would have ended up importing cars from China.
And, on several occasions, he jabbed Romney for talking tough on China but outsourcing jobs to the same nation as the chief executive of Bain capital.
In the final analysis, the elation among the Democrats was palpable, with Obama's closest adviser and confidant saying, "The whole night was a case of a President who is a strong, decisive commander-in-chief, who knows what he believes, says what he believes, is consistent in his beliefs and Governor Romney, who is wrong and reckless and all over the place."
Carville, who was angry with those parsing the debate and quibbling over the final outcome, slamming the various pundits.
He argued, "The truth of the matter is people look at who looked presidential, who looked in command, who looked strong, who was articulate, who was coherent. And the answer is all Obama."
"We are getting lost in the weeds," he thundered. "Clearly, if you watched this debate, the President looked like the stronger guy, he looked like the guy who had something to say, he looked like the guy on the attack."
So, now, onward, to November 6 when the voters will deliver their final verdict.
Image: US Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and US President Barack Obama walk away at the end of the final US presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida | Photograph: Jim Young/Reuters