Third debate leaves lots of unanswered questions on foreign policy

(CNN) -- The final debate of the presidential election was notable for all the areas of foreign policy on which the two candidates seemed to agree. But in their answers were plenty of unanswered questions about how they would handle key foreign policy issues going forward.

Where do things stand on Iran?

It was hard to see concrete differences between the candidates Monday on when it will be necessary to use military force against Iran's nuclear program -- the so-called "red line."

Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney sought to portray themselves as tough on Iran and as having Israel's back. Both suggested they would be willing to use military power if necessary to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But neither was exactly clear about what point at which they would act to prevent that from happening.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the red line should be preventing Iran's "breakout capacity," meaning the point at which Iran has enough uranium enrichment for a nuclear weapon and the technology and know-how to fit a nuclear warhead on a delivery system, such as a long-range missile.

During the debate, Obama repeated his campaign pledge merely to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

"As long as I'm president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," Obama said Monday night.

Until now, the Obama administration has suggested its red line was a strategic decision by the Iranian regime to build a nuclear weapon and the move to build one. That position has caused tension with Netanyahu, who feels Obama has not sent clear enough warnings to Tehran.

But on Monday, the president injected some new language into his refrain, saying American intelligence cooperation with Israel and other countries would give Washington "a sense of when (Iran) would get breakout capacity."

"Which means we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program," Obama said.

So did the president move up the benchmark up during Monday's debate? He never did finish the thought and say either what he meant by breakout or whether he would stop it.

An administration official said Tuesday that the president's red line has not changed.

"We will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the official said. The president's point "is that because of intelligence capabilities and IAEA efforts, we have a sense of their timeline."

Romney's position has been closer to Netanyahu, saying he would stop Iran from having break-out capacity. On Monday, he split the difference, moving closer to Obama's position.

Failing to raise the ambiguous question of the red line, Romney threatened military action if Iran developed "nuclear-weapons capability."

But it's far from clear what Romney means here: Enough uranium to build a weapon -- which could take a matter of a few months -- or the means to quickly assembly and deploy a nuclear warhead atop a missile? Earlier this year, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it would take two to three years for Iran to produce a bomb and have a deliverable weapon on a missile.

The vagueness with which both candidates answered the question of when to take out Iran's nuclear program left more questions than answers. -- By Elise Labott

What's the plan to deal with Syria?

The debate focused for a few minutes on the plan for Syria. But the difference between the two candidates was negligible at best. The real question is does either have a true plan for stopping the violence by the regime of Bashar al-Assad?

Obama laid out his plan, which for the moment involves aiding the opposition but not intervening directly.

"We are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition," the president said. "But we also have to recognize that, you know, for us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step, and we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping; that we're not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region."

Romney, for his part, seemed to have the same plan.

"The right course for us, is working through our partners and with our own resources, to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a -- in a form of -- if not government, a form of -- of -- of council that can take the lead in Syria. And then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves," Romney explained. "We do need to make sure that they don't have arms that get into the -- the wrong hands."

Romney insisted "I don't want to have our military involved in Syria. I don't think there is a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage."

Obama was quick to point out the similarities.

"What you just heard Gov. Romney said is he doesn't have different ideas. And that's because we're doing exactly what we should be doing to try to promote a moderate Syrian leadership and a -- an effective transition so that we get Assad out. That's

the kind of leadership we've shown. That's the kind of leadership we'll continue to show."

For now, the most meaningful difference between the two has been on what arms to give Syrian rebels. Romney has called for supplying arms that could defend against al-Assad tanks and aircraft.

"In Syria, I'll work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and then ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks helicopters and fighter jets," Romney said in a speech earlier this month.

The Obama administration has been reluctant for even allies in the region to provide such heavy firepower for fear of who would end up with the weapons. -- By Adam Levine

What's their approach to the unraveling of the Arab Spring?

For both candidates, the Arab Spring and the forces it unleashed on the streets of the Middle East and North Africa bear close watching in the days, weeks and months ahead, they said. But for the president especially, questions remain over the administration's initial approach as well as the uncertain future of the movement.

On Tunisia, where cries for political reform from protesters in the region began, Obama said "my administration stood with them earlier than just about any country."

But did the administration show its full-fledged support for the protesters as early as Obama asserted?

After a fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest the corruption of longtime dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in December 2011, it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who told Al-Arabiya that "we are not taking sides" in the protests that had been going on for almost a month at that point. Clinton added the United States hoped for a "peaceful resolution," and "I hope the Tunisian government can bring that about."

It was not until a few days later when Ben Ali had fled Tunisia for an exile in Saudi Arabia that Obama issued a statement applauding "the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people."

The abuses and excesses of the Ben Ali family did not go unrecognized by the administration however. In leaked diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks, the U.S. ambassador warned of widespread corruption in the North African country.

"By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not," U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec wrote. "The problem is clear. Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years."

In a similar vein, Obama said Monday that in Egypt, the United States "stood on the side of democracy" in the uprising that eventually overthrew longtime dictator President Hosni Mubarak.

As the protests began in Cairo's Tahrir Square on January 25, and in the days immediately following, the Obama administration did not immediately call for Mubarak's stepping down from power.

In an interview with CNN on January 30, Clinton said the United States stood on the side of a "democratic Egypt that provides both political and economic rights to its people" but stopped short of calling for Mubarak to leave power.

And in a phone conversation with Mubarak on February 1, Obama spoke about an "orderly transition" in Egypt, according to a White House read out of the call, but did not call for Mubarak to step aside -- the mantra of a majority of the protesters in Tahrir Square at that point.

Ten days later, following a televised address in which Mubarak announced he would delegate some of his powers but not step down until later in the year, Obama issued a statement calling on the Egyptian government to "spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step-by-step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek."

While there was no call for Mubarak to step down in that statement, the longtime Egyptian president did so the next day.

But the path forward for the U.S. role in the region, especially Egypt, remains unclear. Both candidates recognize the U.S. must work with Egypt's new government and help develop an economy. But how to do that, while ensuring the country does not trample the democratic rights of women and minorities, is unclear.

In the debate, Obama cited U.S. efforts to organize entrepreneurship conferences to better assist Egyptians with "rebuilding their economy in a way that's noncorrupt, that's transparent." But just after he said that, Obama said for America to be "successful in this region, there are some things that we're going to have to do here at home as well."

After more than a decade at war, Obama said it was time for the United States to look inward and further develop its own economy. "It's very hard for us to project leadership around the world when we're not doing what we need to do here," he said.

For his part, Romney sounded a similar theme as to the future of U.S. engagement with these young democracies.

"But for us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong, and that begins with a strong economy here at home," Romney said. "And unfortunately,

the economy is not stronger." -- By Jamie Crawford

What do they say about the fiscal cliff?

Defense spending continues to be a major point of contention between Obama and Romney. But the president left many wondering if he knew something nobody else did when he flatly declared during the debate that further cuts "will not happen."

The cuts, an additional $500 billion over 10 years, will go into effect if a deficit deal cannot be reached. But that's still a matter of negotiation with Congress. Romney has tried to say that sequestration, which is what the further cuts are called, is an Obama plan. The president rightly points out that it is something that Congress agreed to as a way to force them into making difficult decisions.

"First of all, the sequester is not something that I've proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen," Obama said during the debate.

That was surprising in its certainty. Republican's pounced. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee e-mailed out a statement questioning Obama's involvement in trying to head off sequestration.

"It is a nice line, but for more than a year, the president hasn't lifted a finger to avert the crisis," said the statement from U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon, R-California. "The president and his party in the Senate have failed to offer even a single real solution that could resolve sequestration. If the president is determined that these cuts won't happen, why has he drug it out this long?"

Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod tried to explain it when Jessica Yellin, CNN's chief White House correspondent, interviewed him after the debate.

"Well, he can be sure because when the people vote on November 6 and the president is re-elected, a strong message will be sent -- sent that the American people want a balanced approach to solving this problem," Axelrod said. "There are plenty of people on both sides who want to get that done."

White House senior adviser David Plouffe told Politico that the president was merely reflecting the reality that the cuts are something everyone wants to avoid.

"Listen, you talk to Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. No one thinks it should happen. It was designed so what the parties have to do," Plouffe told Politico. -- By Adam Levine

Why was Romney agreeing to agree so often?

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the third and final debate was Romney's willingness to agree with the president on variety of topics, further closing the foreign policy gap between the two candidates and making it more difficult to discern any true difference. Throughout the debate, Romney agreed to agree with Obama.

But Romney did have some more nuanced positions in areas where he appeared to overall agree with the president.

On Iraq, Romney said his desire to maintain a troop presence after the U.S. withdrawal was no different than the president's failed efforts to negotiate an agreement with the Iraq government to leave 3,000 to 5,000 troops in country. However, Romney supported having 10,000 troops stay in Iraq after the withdrawal.

On Egypt, Romney supported the president's decision to stand with the pro-democracy protesters and against then-President Hosni Mubarak. However, Romney said he wished Obama had had a better vision for the region before the Arab Spring ignited.

"I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president's term and even further back than that, that we'd have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world," said Romney, "and that we would have worked more aggressively with our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form government such that it didn't explode in the way that it did."

On Israel, Romney and Obama expressed strong support for the Jewish state. However, Romney took a more strident tone in response to Bob Schieffer's question: Would either of you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States?

Whereas Obama replied the U.S. would "stand with Israel," Romney replied, "if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That's number one."

On Pakistan, Romney contended the strained relationship between the United States and Pakistan was a necessary evil when it came to finding Osama bin Laden, but he noted "there was a great deal of anger even before that." Romney said the presence of terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network and the Taliban in Pakistan as well as the stockpile of nuclear weapons there means "we can't just walk away from Pakistan." But he said the more than $1 billion in aid the U.S. gives Pakistan "is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met."

On drones, Romney asserted his support for the president's increased use of armed unmanned aircraft to kill terrorists. However, the governor used the question on drones to continue his

attack on the president's strategy in the region, citing tensions with Iran, al Qaeda's resurgent and growing presence and continued unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.

"Let me also note that, as I said earlier, we're going to have to do more than just going after leaders and ... and killing bad guys, important as that is," said Romney. "We're also going to have to have a far more effective and comprehensive strategy to help move the world away from terror and Islamic extremism." -- By Morgan Hitzig

- A CNN National Security Unit report

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