WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama joins other world leaders at the United Nations on Monday after defending his foreign policy record amid anger at the U.S. in the Muslim world, firing back at suggestions from Republican nominee Mitt Romney that he has been weak with allies and enemies alike.
Obama’s comments were his most direct rebuttal yet to Romney’s criticism of his handling of unrest in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
“If Gov. Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so,” Obama said in an interview broadcast Sunday night.
Obama will address the annual U.N. gathering of heads of state on Tuesday, while Romney starts a bus tour of key battleground state Ohio.
In an otherwise tight race for the November election dominated by economic concerns, Obama leads among voters on foreign policy issues. Romney has been trying to undercut that lead as both candidates fight to sway the 7 percent of likely voters who, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll, have yet to pick a candidate.
People in more than two dozen states are already casting ballots in early voting, an increasingly popular move that puts even more pressure on campaigns. At least a third of voters across the country are expected to lock in their choices before Election Day on Nov. 6.
Romney has condemned Obama’s response to unrest in Syria, calling it a “policy of paralysis” and calling for more assertive measures, such as arming the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad. As deadly anti-American protests erupted this month in Libya and elsewhere over an amateur anti-Islam film made in the U.S., Romney called the president’s handling of the situation “disgraceful.”
In a companion interview to Obama’s appearance on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Romney broadened his attack to include Israel, criticizing Obama’s failure to meet with the U.S. ally’s head of state, Benjamin Netanyahu, during the U.N. meeting this week. Romney called it a mistake that “sends a message throughout the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends.”
The White House has said scheduling precluded a meeting between the two leaders, who won’t be in New York at the same time. With the final six weeks of an election campaign hanging over the U.N. session, Obama has opted out of face-to-face meetings with any of his counterparts — not just Netanyahu — during his compressed visit.
But Obama pushed back on the idea that he feels pressure from Netanyahu, dismissing the Israeli leader’s calls for the U.S. to set a “red line” that Iran’s nuclear program must not cross to avoid American military intervention.
“When it comes to our national security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people,” Obama said. “And I am going to block out any noise that’s out there.”
In an interview conducted the day after U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was killed in an attack on Benghazi, Obama defended his foreign policy successes, noting he’d followed through on a commitment to end the war in Iraq and had stopped al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The “60 Minutes” interviews came as Romney’s campaign strove to get past a week of stumbles dominated by the release of a secretly recorded video that showed Romney writing off his prospects for winning over the almost half of Americans who he said pay no taxes and are dependent on government.
As the first of three presidential debates approaches in the first week of October, Romney was refocusing his schedule on the election’s most competitive states. He was beginning a three-day bus tour in Ohio on Monday, followed by a stop in Virginia — states that Obama won in 2008 but that Republicans claimed four years earlier.
The president is not chosen by popular vote but by state-by-state elections, making states that don’t reliably vote Democrat or Republican important in such a tight race.
Polls in several of the most closely watched states, including Colorado, suggest Obama has opened narrow leads.