Barack Obama has defended his handling of the Middle East against criticism from Mitt Romney, saying pointedly that if the Republican presidential candidate wanted to start another war in the region, he should just come out and say it.
Romney accused the president of failing to adopt a more aggressive stance towards ousting Bashar al-Assad from Syria, and claimed Obama's weak leadership elsewhere in the region had opened the way for the riots that led to the death of US ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya and three other Americans.
But Obama brushed aside the criticism. "If Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so," Obama said.
The clash over foreign policy came in separate interviews with Obama and Romney by the CBS 60 Minutes show, broadcast on Sunday night. The exchanges gave the first indication of lines the pair may adopt in the presidential debates, the first of which is in Denver on 3 October.
The Middle East is growing as a campaign issue, with many voters angry over the attacks on the US embassies. Romney is attempting to undercut Obama in an area, foreign policy, in which polls have consistently shown the president enjoys a considerable advantage.
There is little public appetite for US involvement in another war after the one in Libya, in which France and Britain were portrayed as taking a lead, though backed by US logistical support. Obama has been careful to avoid the US being drawn into Syria and has refused to agree to Israeli demands that it set "red lines" on Iran's nuclear programme, which if crossed would trigger military strikes.
In his interview, Romney criticised Obama for his failure to meet Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu either in New York this week when both will be at the United Nations or in Washington. He said this sent a message that the US was distancing itself from its friends.
"I think we also have to communicate that Israel is our ally. Our close ally. The president's decision not to meet with Bibi Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, when the prime minister is here for the United Nations session I think is a mistake and sends a message throughout the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends and I think the exact opposite approach is what's necessary," Romney said.
Obama said he would not be pressured into making decisions. "When it comes to our national security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what's right for the American people. And I am going to block out any noise that's out there," he said. But, he stressed that he felt an "obligation, to make sure that we're in close consultation with the Israelis on these issues. Because it affects them deeply."
Both men were asked about their biggest vulnerabilities. Obama said his was the failure to change the tone in Washington, a key promise from his 2008 campaign.
He said: "I'm the first one to confess that – the spirit that I brought to Washington, that I wanted to see instituted, where we weren't constantly in a political slugfest but were focused more on problem solving that … I haven't fully accomplished that.
"Haven't even come close in some cases. And … if you ask me, what's my biggest disappointment is that we haven't changed the tone in Washington as much as I would have liked."
The admission echoes a similar remark he made less than a week ago in an interview with Hispanic television network Univision when he said he had been unable to change Washington from the inside as he said the lack of immigration reform had been his biggest failure. The remark was pounced upon by Romney and the Republican campaign.
In his 60 Minutes interview, Romney was pressed on his tax reform plans but, as in past months, refused to go into detail. He said he would lower all income tax by 20% and would end many tax loopholes.
"The devil's in the details. The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs," Romney said.
Because the tax cuts were being combined with an end to exemptions and deductions, most Americans would see little change in their tax payments. Working-class people would probably see as "little break".
Romney, who released some of his of personal tax details on Friday, defended the fact that he paid less than 15% in tax because on investment income. "I think it's the right way to encourage economic growth — to get people to invest, to start businesses, to put people to work," he said.
Obama criticised Romney for having pursuing the same kind of tax policies as George W. Bush: tax cuts for the wealthy and rolling back regulations of the financial sector. "Well, we tried that vigorously, between 2001 and 2008 and it didn't work out so well," Obama said.
Romney also brushed aside the suggestion that his campaign was in difficulty. His team has been repeatedly forced on the defensive, unable to gets its message out. Last week was dominated by reports of internal strife and a devastating secret video of a Romney speech dismissive of 47% of Americans as freeloaders.
But asked how he planned to turn things around, Romney said: "Well, it doesn't need a turnaround." He added: "I've got a very effective campaign. It's doing a very good job."
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image: © José Luís Agapito