* "If Israel is attacked, we have their back" - Romney
* "I will stand with Israel if they are attacked" - Obama
By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON, Oct 23 U.S. President Barack Obama
and Republican challenger Mitt Romney vied on Monday over who
was Israel's strongest defender but both agreed that a military
strike over Iran's nuclear program must be a "last resort."
Tehran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is for
developing weapons and that economic sanctions have so far
failed to stop, is almost certain to be among the top foreign
policy challenges facing the next president.
Yet Romney and Obama, in their foreign policy debate, did
not offer sharply contrasting policies to address the challenge.
They agreed on the need for tough economic pressure - and for
safeguarding U.S. ally Israel.
"If Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just
diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily," Romney
"I will stand with Israel if they are attacked," Obama said.
Iran's leaders have from time to time threatened to
eradicate Israel, and Israeli leaders see an Iranian nuclear
weapon as an existential threat. Israel has its own undeclared
The question that has risen repeatedly this year is whether
Israel would conduct a unilateral strike against Iran's nuclear
sites, which would put the United States in a difficult position
of whether to enter another Middle East conflict.
The United States and its allies have significantly
ratcheted up sanctions against Iran. Obama has often said all
options are on the table, but has counseled that diplomacy and
sanctions must have a chance to work.
The candidates did not say what they would do if Israel
conducted a unilateral strike on Iran, and at one point Romney
brushed aside a hypothetical question on what he would do if the
Israeli prime minister called to inform him Israel's bombers
were en route to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
"The disagreement I have with Governor Romney is that,
during the course of this campaign, he's often talked as if we
should take premature military action," Obama said at the final
debate before the Nov. 6 election.
"I think that would be a mistake, because when I've sent
young men and women into harm's way, I always understand that
that is the last resort, not the first resort," he said.
Romney and Obama both said it was important to prevent Iran
from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"We need to increase pressure, time and time again, on Iran
because anything other than ... a solution to this ... which
stops this, this nuclear folly of theirs, is unacceptable to
America," Romney said.
"And of course, a military action is the last resort. It is
something one would only ... consider if all of the other
avenues had been ... tried to their full extent," he said.
Romney pressed his campaign's argument that Obama has been
an insufficient friend to Israel, and criticized the president
for not visiting the country since he has been in the White
Clearly annoyed, Obama criticized Romney for taking
fundraisers on a summer trip to Israel and said that on his own
trip as a presidential candidate, he visited the Israeli city of
Sderot, a frequent target of missiles launched from the Gaza
Strip by the militant group Hamas.
The result, he said, was his administration's funding
support for an Israeli missile defense system called Iron Dome.
Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, an international security expert at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the foreign
policy debate was "underwhelming" and the candidates kept
switching to domestic policies.
"I thought they both were saying the same thing on Iran.
Their policies didn't differ very much," Nelson said. "I didn't
see anything different about their policy in Iran, particularly
their policy regarding Israel as well. They were in sync on
Obama bluntly said newspaper reports that Iran and the
United States had agreed to hold bilateral talks on Tehran's
nuclear program were not true.
Iran has also denied that bilateral negotiations on its
nuclear program had been scheduled.
The United States and other Western powers say Iran's
nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, but
Tehran says the purpose is purely peaceful.
On Syria, Romney tried to put Obama on the defensive by
saying the administration has not led in the crisis in which
thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad
remains in power.
"What I'm afraid of is, we've watched over the past year or
so, first the president saying, well, we'll let the U.N. deal
with it," Romney said. "We should be playing the leadership role
The United States should work with partners to organize the
Syrian opposition and "make sure they have the arms necessary to
defend themselves," he said.
"I am confident that Assad's days are numbered," Obama said.
"But what we can't do is to simply suggest that, as Governor
Romney at times has suggested, that giving heavy weapons, for
example, to the Syrian opposition is a simple proposition that
would lead us to be safer over the long term."