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Close Read: Debate No. 3, On Foreign Policy


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

One final presidential debate means one final close read of what Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama said last night, this time on foreign policy. A team of NPR correspondents has been checking facts and also just trying to help explain statements, starting with this one by Mitt Romney on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.


MITT ROMNEY: Well, we're going to be finished by 2014. And when I'm president, we'll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.

INSKEEP: Finished by the end of 2014 - that statement caught the attention of our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Tom, why?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Steve, because that's not what Governor Romney said just last month in a speech to the National Guard Association in Nevada. In that speech, Governor Romney said it was a goal to complete transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. He said he would first evaluate conditions on the ground, listen to the best advice of his military commanders first. He wasn't definitive like he was last night.

INSKEEP: You also noticed, Tom Bowman, that President Obama did not specifically refer to the year 2014. What makes that of interest?

BOWMAN: Well, what the president left out is this: that he signed a 10-year security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai just back in May. And he said the U.S. would help Afghanistan with training Afghan troops, take part in a counter-terror mission after 2014. And people I talked with at the Pentagon says the planners are looking at as many as 10,000 troops after 2014 that would help in these missions.

INSKEEP: Now, there was some discussion of Syria last night, where a civil war has become increasingly violent, of course. But President Obama said the United States is shaping that situation.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are mobilizing humanitarian support and support for the opposition. And we are making sure that those we help are those who will be friends of ours in the long-term and friends of our allies in the region over the long-term.

INSKEEP: Making sure that those we help will be friends. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is listening in.

Is that true?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, when the president says the U.S. is making sure that they're going to be friends, it's a bit of wishful thinking. The U.S. has sent the CIA and other forces to the border with Syria to try to get a fix on who's picking up guns and other ammunition. But that's turned out to be just about impossible.

Intelligence officials have told us that they're genuinely concerned about violent Islamists and al-Qaida sympathizers getting these arms.

INSKEEP: And they're weapons coming, we should clarify, not from the United States, but from other countries in the region to Syria.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly, and the United States has sent people to the border to just try and keep some sort of tabs on what's going into Syria. And, as you know, for some time now, the big concern has been the spillover of violence in Syria into other countries. But now the concern is that Syrian arms are popping up elsewhere.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks, Dina Temple-Raston.

There was also discussion, of course, of Iran last night, including a dire warning from Mitt Romney.


ROMNEY: The greatest threat of all is Iran, four years closer to a nuclear weapon.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten was listening.

Tom, is that an accurate characterization?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Yeah, it is. Iranians have been enriching uranium. They've built more centrifuges and they've put their nuclear facilities deeper underground. So, yeah, Iran is four years closer to a nuclear Iran. And Governor Romney said that these four years have been wasted in that regard. But he also said that the sanctions on Iran are crippling, and he said that they're the right thing to do. So that didn't quite square.

INSKEEP: The president also made some statements about Iran, including this one, essentially saying that Mitt Romney agrees with him.


OBAMA: I'm pleased that you now are endorsing our policy of applying diplomatic pressure, and potentially having bilateral discussions with the Iranians to end their nuclear program. But just a few years ago, you said that's something you'd never do.

INSKEEP: Now, as we do this close read, there was one phrase that caught the ear of NPR's Michele Kelemen: bilateral discussions.

Why is that of interest, Michele?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Because just a few minutes earlier in the debate, President Obama denied a New York Times report that said the U.S. and Iran had agreed, in principle, for one-on-one talks after the elections. And there he was, talking about the potential for just that.

INSKEEP: A specific report of specific talks was denied, but that may still be the plan at some point.

KELEMEN: And the White House has always said that it's willing to have these discussions, although they've had the discussions in the past only on the sidelines of broader, multilateral talks with Iran.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks.

Let's also talk here about Israel, because they discussed it last night, a couple of accusations going back and forth: Mitt Romney stating that when President Obama went to the Middle East in 2009, he visited a number of countries, but not Israel.


ROMNEY: You skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel.

INSKEEP: To which President Obama replied that he did go to Israel as a candidate for president, and had a more substantive trip than Mitt Romney did a few months ago.


OBAMA: When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors. I didn't attend fundraisers.

INSKEEP: We noted some movement on Mitt Romney's part earlier about Afghanistan. NPR's Peter Kenyon is noticing some movement by the president here on Israel.

Peter, what is it?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, you may remember there was some question about whether the president had said things function better in the Mideast when there's some daylight between the U.S. and Israel. You would certainly not have heard anything like that last night. This was a case of who could be closer to Israel. The moderator, Bob Schieffer, at one point tried to draw the president into sort of announcing kind of treaty-type language, saying an attack on Israel would be an attack on the U.S.

But President Obama didn't bite on that. He just said: We will stand with Israel. And likewise, Mitt Romney just said: We have Israel's back. It was generic support for Israel, without too much commitment.

INSKEEP: But the rhetorical support for Israel, they're both pushing as hard as they can.

KENYON: Absolutely, to the point of not saying a single word about a Mideast peace process - nothing, not even criticism of Mitt Romney's private fundraising comments about kicking that issue down the road.

INSKEEP: Okay. There's been some criticism of this debate, because it focused so much on the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. But they did manage to wander over to China, and here's something that Mitt Romney said about that.


ROMNEY: That's why on day one, I will label them a currency manipulator.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt was listening to that in Shanghai.

And, Frank, I was just wondering: What does it mean to label China a currency manipulator?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Not a lot, Steve. What it would lead is to the United States having consultations with China and maybe, if dissatisfied, America could slap countervailing duties on Chinese products. The larger concern, though, is getting into a trade war with the second-largest economy in the world. I mean, right now, China is the fastest-growing export market for American businesses, so a trade war could actually hurt a lot of U.S. exporters. I don't think people expect a lot to come from this.

INSKEEP: Frank, I want to ask about something else, because I know you used to cover the auto industry, and the candidates strayed into domestic policy when they argued over an article that Romney wrote opposing the federal bailout of auto companies.


OBAMA: You did not say that you would provide, governor, help.

ROMNEY: I said that we would provide guarantees, and that was what was able to allow these companies to go through bankruptcy, to come out of bankruptcy...

INSKEEP: Okay. Now, I've got the article here, and it actually does talk about federal guarantees for financing after the companies go through bankruptcy. So what is the difference between these two men?

LANGFITT: Well, the difference is that Governor Romney was talking about the federal government backstopping private investment to help these two companies get through bankruptcy. What President Obama is talking about was actually using taxpayer money to do it, which is how it went in the end.

INSKEEP: So the real difference between the two of them was whether or not to have spent billions of dollars in federal money on a bailout to keep the car companies alive.

LANGFITT: Yeah. What Governor Romney was talking about was federal guarantees. The problem is that would've required private investment. And at the time, it was very clear from the markets that there weren't any people who willing to put up that kind of money from the private sector to save these companies.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks. That's NPR's Frank Langfitt, in Shanghai. There is one last thing that we want to mention before we go away. Mitt Romney criticized the size of the U.S. Navy, says it's getting too small. The president responded this way.


OBAMA: You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed.

INSKEEP: Our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is still with us. Tom, true?

BOWMAN: It is true, but of course, Steve, as you know, American Special Forces rode into battle on horseback to defeat the Taliban in 2001. But since then, all the trips I've to Afghanistan, I have not seen any Army horses or Army mules.

INSKEEP: Okay. So lucky that he said fewer horses and bayonets, because there still are some.

BOWMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: Okay. NPR's Tom Bowman, Tom Gjelten, Michele Kelemen, Dina Temple-Raston, Peter Kenyon and Frank Langfitt, thanks to you all.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

KELEMEN: Thank you.


KENYON: Bye-bye.

INSKEEP: And on this Tuesday morning, there are two weeks until Election Day. It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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