Third presidential debate transcript: Romney & Obama’s exchange on the Middle East

Transcribed and edited by Jenny Jiang

Excerpts from the third and final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida on Oct. 22, 2012

Transcript of Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama’s discussion on the changing landscape in the Middle East:

Gov. Mitt Romney:

Well, my strategy’s pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure that we do our very best to interrupt them – to kill them, to take them out of the picture. But my strategy is broader than that. That’s important, of course.

But the key that we’re going to have to pursue is a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own. We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us.

The right course for us is to make sure that we go after the people who are the leaders of these various anti-American groups – these jihadists – but also help the Muslim world.

But how do we do that? A group of Arab scholars came together – and it’s organized by the U.N. – to look at how we can help the world reject these terrorists. So the answer they came up with was this.

One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends’ – we should coordinate it to make sure that we push back and give them more economic development.

Number two, better education.

Number three, gender equality.

Number four, the rule of law.

We have to help these nations create civil societies. But what’s been happening over the last couple of years is that we’ve watched this tumult in the Middle East – this rising tide of chaos occur. You see Al Qaeda rushing in. You see other jihadist groups rushing in, and they’re throughout many nations in the Middle East.

It’s wonderful that Libya seems to be making some progress despite this terrible tragedy. But next we have, of course, Egypt. Libya’s 6 million population. Egypt 80 million population.

We want to make sure we’re seeing progress throughout the Middle East.

With Mali now – having north Mali taken over by Al Qaeda. With Syria having Assad continuing to kill, to murder his own people. This is a region in tumult.

And of course, Iran on a path to nuclear weapon.


President Barack Obama: 

Gov. Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that Al Qaeda is a threat because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geo-political threat facing America, you said, “Russia.” Not Al Qaeda. You said Russia. The 1980s are now calling their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.

But governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.

You say that you’re not interested in duplicating what happened in Iraq but just a few weeks ago, you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now.

And the challenge we have – I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy – but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.

You said we should have gone into Iraq despite the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction. You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day.

You indicated that we shouldn’t be passing nuclear treaties with Russia despite the fact that 71 Senators – Democrats and Republicans both voted for it.

You’ve said that first we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan and then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends. Which means that not only were you wrong but you’re also confusing and sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies.

So what we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership – not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map. And unfortunately, that’s the kind of opinions that you’ve offered throughout this campaign and it is not a recipe for American strength or keeping America safe.

Gov. Mitt Romney:

Well, of course, I don’t concur with what the President said about my own record and the things that I’ve said. They don’t happen to be accurate.

But I can say this that we’re talking about the Middle East and how to help the Middle East reject the kind of terrorism we’re seeing and the rising tide of tumult and confusion and attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we’re going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East and take advantage of the opportunities there and stem the tide of this violence.

But I’ll respond to a couple of things that you’ve mentioned.

First of all, Russia – I indicated – is a geo-political foe, and I said 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 Mr. 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.

Number two, with regards to Iraq, you and I agreed and believed that there should have been a status of forces agreement.


President Barack Obama: 

What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East…


Gov. Here’s one thing I’ve learned as commander-in-chief: You’ve got to be clear both to our allies and our enemies about where you stand and what you mean.

Now, you just gave a speech a few weeks ago in which you said we should still have troops in Iraq. That is not a recipe for making sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities and meeting the challenges of the Middle East.

Now, it is absolutely true that we cannot just meet these challenges militarily. And so what I’ve done throughout my presidency and will continue to do is:

Number one, make sure that these countries are supporting our counter-terrorism efforts.

Number two, make sure that they are standing by our interests in Israel’s security because it is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.

Number three, we do have to make sure that we’re protecting religious minorities and women because these countries can’t develop unless all the population – not just half of it – is developing.

Number four, we do have to develop their economic capabilities.

But number five, the other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can’t continue to do nation-building in these regions. Part of American leadership is making sure that we’re doing nation-building here at home. That will help us maintain the kind of American leadership that we need.




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