Obama, Romney Spar on Mid East Policy in Final Presidential Debate

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Michael Reynolds / Reuters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens with President Barack Obama to moderator Bob Schieffer before the start of the final presidential debate Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 22, 2012.

President Obama took aim at Mitt Romney‘s foreign policy Monday night, using the final presidential debate  to portray the Republican nominee as callow and unsteady on international affairs while emphasizing his own role in navigating the nation through turbulent foreign conflicts.

Romney and Obama spent the better part of 90 minutes Monday night tangling over the proper U.S. approach to the Middle East, sparring over Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Iran. But despite a series of testy exchanges, the debate, held in Boca Raton, Fla., clarified few substantive policy disagreements between the two candidates, and is unlikely to do much to alter the state of the race.

Locked in a nail-biter with two weeks to go before the nation heads to the polls, the two candidates took divergent approaches to their previous one-on-one showdowns. Obama was the aggressor, blistering Romney for propagating murky polices which he characterized as “all over the map” and telling the former Massachusetts governor: “Every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.”

(MORE: Mark Halperin: Grading the Battle in Boca)

In one of the night’s few electric exchanges, the President shot back when Romney criticized him for failing to visit Israel during his term, noting that when he did visit the country as a candidate, “I didn’t take donors. 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.”

Romney, who has surged into a virtual tie with the president in recent weeks, charged the President with diminishing the U.S.’s international standing. “I don’t see our influence growing around the world. I see our influence receding, in part because of the failure of our president,” he said. He said Obama had “wasted” the past four years of brinkmanship with Iran by failing to coax the country into abandoning its nuclear program.

But for the most part, Romney sought to play it safe on subject matter outside his economic wheelhouse. On topic after topic, he staked out positions that were barely different than the President’s before pivoting to an inchoate critique of Obama’s overarching shortcomings.

(MORE: The Election’s Real Foreign Policy Issue: War with Iran)

The result was a desultory final debate, rife with debunked canards (Obama’s phantom “apology tour”), cable-friendly catch phrases (Iranian “red lines”) and patriotic boilerplate about America’s role in the world but light on concrete differences or illuminating exchanges. Barely a half-hour elapsed before both candidates pivoted back to the domestic issues that both sides believe loom paramount in voters’ minds. Romney even ate up several minutes of clock by rattling off his five-point plan to create jobs, a stalwart of his stump speech.

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It may have been just as well. “What you just heard Gov. Romney said is he doesn’t have different ideas,” Obama said after one early exchange about the prospect of imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. “And that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing.” Later, he chided Romney for castigating policies he seemed to all but agree with. “It sounded like you thought that you’d do the same things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that would make a difference,” Obama snickered.

Content to fight the final debate to a draw, Romney was serene and unruffled as he sought to project a presidential bearing. “Attacking me is not an agenda,” he said. But the President has a record, and the Republican nominee didn’t do much to articulate how his own would differ.

MORE: Debate Finale: Romney Agrees With Obama, Says Give Peace a Chance