Even the excerpts released in advance of the speech didn’t capture how pugnacious Mitt Romney would be and how withering his criticism of President Obama would be in his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nev., today.
He began by a foreign-policy version of “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” (“[H]as the American economy recovered? Has our ability to shape world events been enhanced, or diminished? Have we gained greater confidence among our allies, and greater respect from our adversaries? And, perhaps most importantly, has the most severe security threat facing America and our friends, a nuclear-armed Iran, become more or less likely?”)
His biggest and catchiest applause- line was this: “The President’s policies have made it harder to recover from the deepest recession in seventy years … exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify … compromised our national-security secrets … and in dealings with other nations, given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved, and apology where it is not due.”
He then echoed past speeches by pledging to make it an “American century.” (“In an American century, we have the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American century, we secure peace through our strength. And if by absolute necessity we must employ it, we must wield our strength with resolve. In an American century, we lead the free world, and the free world leads the entire world.”)
Substantial time was spent hammering the president on defense cuts:
Other major powers are rapidly adding to their military capabilities, some with intentions very different from ours. The regime in Tehran is drawing closer to developing a nuclear weapon. The threat of radical Islamic terrorism persists. The threat of weapons of mass destruction proliferation is ever-present. And we are still at war and still have uniformed men and women in conflict.
All this and more is ongoing in the world. And yet the president has chosen this moment for wholesale reductions in the nation’s military capacity. When the biggest announcement in his last State of the Union address on improving our military was that the Pentagon will start using more clean energy – then you know it’s time for a change.
He cited Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for the proposition that some national-security leaks are coming from the White House. He was indignant, showing a rare flash of anger:
This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel, with explanation and consequence. Obama appointees, who are accountable to President Obama’s attorney general, should not be responsible for investigating the leaks coming from the Obama White House.
Whoever provided classified information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration, must be exposed, dismissed and punished. The time for stonewalling is over.
It is not enough to say the matter is being looked into, and leave it at that. When the issue is the political use of highly sensitive national security information, it is unacceptable to say, “We’ll report our findings after Election Day.”
Exactly who in the White House betrayed these secrets? Did a superior authorize it? These are things that Americans are entitled to know — and they are entitled to know right now. If the president believes — as he said last week — that the buck stops with him, then he owes all Americans a full and prompt accounting of the facts.
And let me make this very clear: These events make the decision we face in November all the more important. What kind of White House would reveal classified material for political gain? I’ll tell you right now: Mine won’t.
Amid the expected criticism of the president’s handling of China, Russsia and Iran and his “shabby” treatment of Israel, Romney made three significant policy proposals.
On Iran, he asserted that “A clear line must be drawn: There must be a full suspension of any enrichment, period. And at every turn, Iran must know that the United States and our allies stand as one in these critical objectives. Only in this way can we successfully counter the catastrophic threat that Iran presents. I pledge to you and to all Americans that if I become commander-in-chief, I will use every means necessary to protect ourselves and the region, and to prevent the worst from happening while there is still time.” In other words, if the regime doesn’t give up all nuclear enrichment, it will face a response that includes use of force.
He also clarified his view on Afghanistan: “I have been critical of the president’s decision to withdraw the surge troops during the fighting season, against the advice of the commanders on the ground. President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war — and to potential attacks here at home — is a politically timed retreat. As president, my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. I will evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation.” In short, he will go back to the Obama “surge” without the fixed deadline and premature withdrawal.
And, most impressively, Romney set out a coherent view on the Arab Spring:
Egypt is at the center of this historical drama. In many ways, it has the power to tip the balance in the Arab world toward freedom and modernity. As president, I will not only direct the billions in assistance we give to Egypt toward that goal, but I will also work with partner nations to place conditions on their assistance as well. Unifying our collective influence behind a common purpose will foster the development of a government that represents all Egyptians, maintains peace with Israel, and promotes peace throughout the region. The United States is willing to help Egypt support peace and prosperity, but we will not be complicit in oppression and instability.
Romney’s tone was forceful, even aggressive, throughout, bashing the president in blunt language (“If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your president. You have that president today.”) But he also displayed in the second half of the speech more policy nuance and thoughtfulness than we have seen to date. One thing is clear: He’s ceding no ground on foreign policy to the president.