The vice presidential debate delved immediately into foreign policy issues on Thursday night, opening with questions about the attack on the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11.
Vice President Joe Biden, asked about the intelligence failures that led to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in the attack, vowed that the administration of President Barack Obama would find the men responsible. He then quickly tried to establish Obama’s foreign policy credentials, noting the president has followed through on his promise to remove troops from Iraq and hunted down arch-terrorist Osama Bin Laden.
Republican candidate Rep. Paul Ryan took aim at the administration for first denying that the attack was premeditated, and for initially blaming the Youtube video “Innocence of Muslims” for sparking riots.
“What we are seeing is the unraveling of Obama’s foreign policy,” Ryan said, claiming that the administration was “projecting weakness abroad.”
The next topic, Iran’s nuclear program, brought Israel to the forefront. Both men referred frequently to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, using his Israeli nickname “Bibi,” in an argument over which team would do more to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb and protect the Jewish state.
Ryan attacked the Obama administration’s stance on Iran, claiming it had hampered strong economic sanctions that could convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and rebuking the president for not meeting with Netanyahu during the prime minister’s recent visit to New York.
Biden scoffed at the notion that Iran was on the brink of obtaining a nuclear weapon, indicating that talk from Israel and conservatives in America to the contrary was mere “loose talk” and inaccurate.
“When my friend talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up, then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know — we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon,” Biden said.
“So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk, what are they talking about? Are you talking about, to be more credible — what more can the president do, stand before the United Nations, tell the whole world, directly communicate to the ayatollah, we will not let them acquire a nuclear weapon, period, unless he’s talking about going to war.”
Biden utilized the word “malarkey” to describe what he considered inaccurate assessments of the Iranian challenge and ostensible differences between the administration and Israel on the issue.
The two also sparred over the timing and manner of an eventual withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
Biden is under pressure to undo some of the damage from Obama’s lackluster debate performance last week against the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, and to restore energy to the Democratic campaign less than a month before the Nov. 6 election.
Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin who is a generation younger than his opponent, has to hold on to the Republicans’ sudden rise in the polls.
Unlike Biden, Ryan is not a foreign policy expert but stood his ground in territory that is more familiar to the veteran senator. The two also argued over the poor state of the US economy, with Biden saying Republicans must take responsibility for obstructing the economic recovery.
The slow economy has been the dominant issue of the US election, and Ryan cited high unemployment numbers as evidence that there is no economic recovery under way.
In turn, the pressure was on for Biden to go where Obama did not in his own debate.
He quickly did so, citing Romney’s opposition to the administration’s successful auto industry bailout, and noting that it was not surprising given the Republican’s recent videotaped comment in which he was heard saying that 47 percent of Americans view themselves as victims who depend on the government and refuse to take responsibility for their lives.
Biden is seeking to regain some of the ground lost after last week’s presidential debate, which erased Obama’s advantage and boosted Romney nationally and — more importantly — in such battleground states as Ohio. That is especially relevant as the US president is not elected by a nationwide popular vote, but in a series of state-by-state contests.
About 41 states are seen as essentially already decided for Romney or Obama, leaving nine up for grabs, including Ohio. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying that state.
The 90-minute debate — the only vice presidential one, — was moderated by Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News.
Romney and Obama meet again Tuesday for a town hall-style debate in Hempstead, New York. Their third and last debate is scheduled Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Florida.