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Transcript of final 2012 presidential debate

ROMNEY: Well, of course I don't concur with what the president said about my own record and the things that I've said. They don't happen to be accurate. But -- but I can say this, that we're talking about the Middle East and how to help the Middle East reject the kind of terrorism we're seeing, and the rising tide of tumult and -- and confusion. And -- and attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we're going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East, and take advantage of the opportunity there, and stem the tide of this violence.

But I'll respond to a couple of things that you mentioned. First of all, Russia I indicated is a geopolitical foe. Not...

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: Excuse me. It's a geopolitical foe, and I said in the same -- in the same paragraph I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I'm certainly not going to say to him, I'll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he'll get more backbone. Number two, with regards to Iraq, you and I agreed I believe that there should be a status of forces agreement.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: Oh you didn't? You didn't want a status of...

OBAMA: What I would not have had done was left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. And that certainly would not help us in the Middle East.

ROMNEY: I'm sorry, you actually -- there was a -- there was an effort on the part of the president to have a status of forces agreement, and I concurred in that, and said that we should have some number of troops that stayed on. That was something I concurred with...

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: Governor...

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: ...that your posture. That was my posture as well. You thought it should have been 5,000 troops...

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: Governor?

ROMNEY: ... I thought there should have been more troops, but you know what? The answer was we got...

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: ... no troops through whatsoever.

OBAMA: This was just a few weeks ago that you indicated that we should still have troops in Iraq.

ROMNEY: No, I...

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: ...I'm sorry that's a...

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: You -- you...

ROMNEY: ...that's a -- I indicated...

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: ...major speech.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: ...I indicated that you failed to put in place a status...

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OBAMA: Governor?

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: ...of forces agreement at the end of the conflict that existed.

OBAMA: Governor -- here -- here's -- here's one thing...

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: ...here's one thing I've learned as commander in chief.

(CROSSTALK)

SCHIEFFER: Let him answer...

OBAMA: You've got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean. You just gave a speech a few weeks ago in which you said we should still have troops in Iraq. That is not a recipe for making sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities and meeting the challenges of the Middle East.

Now, it is absolutely true that we cannot just meet these challenges militarily. And so what I've done throughout my presidency and will continue to do is, number one, make sure that these countries are supporting our counterterrorism efforts.

Number two, make sure that they are standing by our interests in Israel's security, because it is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.

Number three, we do have to make sure that we're protecting religious minorities and women because these countries can't develop unless all the population, not just half of it, is developing.

Number four, we do have to develop their economic -- their economic capabilities.

But number five, the other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can't continue to do nation building in these regions. Part of American leadership is making sure that we're doing nation building here at home. That will help us maintain the kind of American leadership that we need.

SCHIEFFER: Let me interject the second topic question in this segment about the Middle East and so on, and that is, you both mentioned -- alluded to this, and that is Syria.

The war in Syria has now spilled over into Lebanon. We have, what, more than 100 people that were killed there in a bomb. There were demonstrations there, eight people dead.

Mr. President, it's been more than a year since you saw -- you told Assad he had to go. Since then, 30,000 Syrians have died. We've had 300,000 refugees.

The war goes on. He's still there. Should we reassess our policy and see if we can find a better way to influence events there? Or is that even possible?

And you go first, sir.

OBAMA: What we've done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go. We've mobilized sanctions against that government. We have made sure that they are isolated. We have provided humanitarian assistance and we are helping the opposition organize, and we're particularly interested in making sure that we're mobilizing the moderate forces inside of Syria.

But ultimately, Syrians are going to have to determine their own future. And so everything we're doing, we're doing in consultation with our partners in the region, including Israel which obviously has a huge interest in seeing what happens in Syria; coordinating with Turkey and other countries in the region that have a great interest in this.

This -- what we're seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking, and that's why we are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition. 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.

And I am confident that Assad's days are numbered. 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.

SCHIEFFER: Governor?

ROMNEY: Well, let's step back and talk about what's happening in Syria and how important it is. First of all, 30,000 people being killed by their government is a humanitarian disaster. Secondly, Syria is an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now.

Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea. It's the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally, Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a -- a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don't want to have military involvement there. We don't want to get drawn into a military conflict.

And so 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. We do need to make sure that they don't have arms that get into the -- the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road. We need to make sure as well that we coordinate this effort with our allies, and particularly with -- with Israel.

But the Saudi's and the Qatari, and -- and the Turks are all very concerned about this. They're willing to work with us. We need to have a very effective leadership effort in Syria, making sure that the -- the insurgent there are armed and that the insurgents that become armed, are people who will be the responsible parties. Recognize -- I believe that Assad must go. I believe he will go. But I believe -- we want to make sure that we have the relationships of friendship with the people that take his place, steps that in the years to come we see Syria as a -- as a friend, and Syria as a responsible party in the Middle East.

This -- this is a critical opportunity for America. And 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. And Assad -- excuse me, Kofi Annan came in and said we're going to try to have a ceasefire. That didn't work. Then it went to the Russians and said, let's see if you can do something. We should be playing the leadership role there, not on the ground with military.

SCHIEFFER: All right.