Presidential debate unfolds 50 years after Cuban missile crisis

Bob Schieffer, the moderator for the third and final presidential debate between President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, set the stage for the night’s contest by noting the anniversary of one of the country’s most harrowing foreign policy challenges.

Monday, Schieffer reminded viewers, is the 50th anniversary of the day President Kennedy addressed the nation about the Cuban missile crisis. It was, said Schieffer, “perhaps the closest we’ve ever come to nuclear war. And it is a sobering reminder that every president faces at some point an unexpected threat to our national security from abroad.”

Half a century after that fraught moment, the challenges facing the United States around the world are entirely different.

Schieffer began by asking each man about the recent crisis in Libya, where the American consulate in Benghazi was attacked and the U.S. ambassador and three others were killed. It is an issue that has dominated the presidential campaign in recent weeks, as partisans argue about what the administration knew and when, and whether Romney inappropriately inserted himself into a foreign crisis by releasing a statement critical of the Obama administration before much was known.

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“Was it an intelligence failure?” asked Schieffer about the events leading to the consulate attack. “Was it a policy failure? Was there an attempt to mislead people about what really happened?”

Romney, who had won the coin toss, answered first.

The former Massachusetts governor was measured in his response to what most expected to be a potentially explosive topic in this debate. Instead of attacking the president for offering evolving accounts of what took place on the ground in Libya, Romney offered an overview of the Middle East situation and a generalized sense of disappointment with Obama. The U.S., he said, has experienced “a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region.”

The Arab Spring, said Romney, brought “a great deal of hope that there would be a change toward more moderation and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women and -- and public life and in economic life in the Middle East. But instead we’ve seen in nation after nation a number of disturbing events. Of course, we see in Syria 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in Libya an attack apparently by -- well, I think we know now by terrorists of some kind against -- against our people there, four people dead. Our hearts and minds go to them.”

Without being specific about Iran’s nuclear program, Romney merely said, that the country is “of course” four years closer to a nuclear weapon.

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And with one deft sentence, Romney managed to defuse what has been one of President Obama’s greatest selling points in foreign policy — that he authorized the killing of the man who orchestrated the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history:

“I congratulate him 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.”

For his part, the president listed the achievements of his first term, emphasizing that his first responsibility as commander in chief is to keep Americans safe, “and that’s what we’ve done over the last four years.”

Obama cited ending the war in Iraq, transitioning out of the war in Afghanistan and refocusing attention on Al Qaeda -- “those who actually killed us on 9/11.”

He had clearly prepared a response to criticism about how his administration handled the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which has been a recurring theme of Republican criticism since the event occurred Sept. 11.

“I think it’s important to step back and think about what happened in Libya. Now, keep in mind that I and Americans took leadership in organizing an international coalition that made sure that we were able to -- without putting troops on the ground, at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq -- liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years, got rid of a despot who had killed Americans. And as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying, ‘America’s our friend. We stand with them.’ Now that represents the opportunity we have to take advantage of,” Obama said.

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Obama ended those remarks with a zinger aimed directly at Romney, and designed to hit Romney’s relative lack of foreign policy experience: “I’m glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after Al Qaeda, but I have to tell you that, you know, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East.”

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