Romney, speaking to VFW, slams Obama on leaks, planned defense cuts

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney outlined Tuesday an assertive American nationalism that would guide his foreign policy, calling for a more aggressive posture in confronting the United States’ rivals and more consistency in dealing with its allies.

Romney advisers had billed the half-hour speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention here as a major foreign policy address, one his campaign originally said he intended to give months ago. The presumptive GOP nominee has spoken little about foreign policy recently, but on Tuesday he did so sharply on an issue generally considered a strength of President Obama’s.

As he prepared to depart for a six-day trip to Europe and the Middle East, where he said he plans to refrain from criticizing the American president, Romney accused Obama of misjudging Russia, failing to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, coddling China, offending Israel and jeopardizing the U.S. military with budget cuts that Republican congressional leaders have supported.

The address, delivered with vigor, did not highlight the kind of specific policy approaches that Obama campaign advisers have called on Romney to present. At one point, Romney even endorsed Obama’s plan for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, a timeline he once criticized. He also detailed an approach to Iran’s nuclear program virtually identical to Obama’s.

But the address was long on the soaring language of American exceptionalism, and it echoed in places his campaign’s seminal foreign policy address, which he delivered last year at the Citadel. There, he called for a new “American century,” and he did so again in Reno before a largely receptive audience.

The lofty appeal to a mid-20th-century view of U.S. power stood in sharp contrast to Obama’s more calculated, realist approach to diplomacy. A Washington Post-ABC News poll published in May found that 48 percent of Americans supported Obama’s handling of foreign affairs, while 46 percent did not.

“I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country,” Romney told the audience to applause. “I am not ashamed of American power.”

With the economy ailing, the Obama campaign has often presented the president’s foreign policy record as a proxy of leadership and competence.

His advisers have argued that he has been successful in restoring the nation’s image as a reliable global player, reinvigorating alliances neglected by his predecessor and engaging traditional antagonists. His winding down of two inherited wars — and the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden — have been celebrated in campaign advertising and on the trail.

“It’s widely accepted that President Obama has an exceptionally strong record on national security issues,” Robert Gibbs, a former Obama White House press secretary who is now a senior campaign adviser, told reporters Monday in a conference call.

“And I think, quite frankly, that Mitt Romney is having a rather tough time making an argument against the president of the United States on these issues,” he said.

Romney’s foreign policy team, advised primarily by veterans of the Reagan and both Bush administrations, made clear early on that it intended to challenge Obama’s record abroad. In doing so, the campaign is distinguishing between Obama’s success in counterterrorism operations and his management of foreign affairs more generally.

Romney told the VFW audience, which heard from Obama the previous day, that “the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunity.” He used words such as “diminished,” “devastation,” “faltered,” “misjudgment” and “abandonment” to describe the president’s record.

Romney described a country that has lost its way under Obama and warned that impending defense cuts, demanded by the agreement last year to raise the borrowing limit, could threaten national security.

He also criticized the leaks of classified material — about drone operations and the raid that killed bin Laden — that has appeared in various books, magazines and newspapers. He called on Obama to allow a “special counsel” to investigate the leaks, which he said were made to benefit Obama’s campaign.

“What kind of White House would reveal classified material for political gain?” Romney said. “I’ll tell you right now: Mine won’t.”

Aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Jay Carney referred questions about Romney’s accusation to the federal prosecutors investigating the matter. He said the president has made it “abundantly clear” that he has no tolerance for leaks, which he said are damaging to national security.

Romney will leave Wednesday for a tour of England, Israel and Poland, and his itinerary helps illustrate the critique of Obama’s foreign policies that he offered Tuesday.

After beginning in London, where he will attend the Olympic Games, Romney is scheduled to head to Israel.

Obama has increased U.S. military aid to Israel and cooperated in the building of Israel’s missile-defense system, Iron Dome.

But the president has had a tense relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly over Israel’s settlement construction on land that Palestinians consider their future state.

Romney is likely to offer a clear contrast. But how the Republican, who during a forum last year played down a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, intends to speak about the conflict is unclear and may test his diplomatic fluency on a core issue.

In his speech, he said Obama is “fond of lecturing Israel’s leaders.” But, he said, “the people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world.”

Iran probably will be the chief point of interest when Romney meets Netanyahu, whom he has known since the the mid-1970s, when they became friends as colleagues at the Boston Consulting Group.

“There is no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons capability,” Romney said. “Yet for all the talk and conferences, all the extensions and assurances, can anyone say we are farther from this danger now than four years ago?”

The solution he outlined, though, mirrors Obama’s approach — a series of strict sanctions “cutting off the regime’s source of wealth,” negotiations and access for nuclear inspectors. Obama has declined to rule out a military strike.

Romney’s last stop will be Poland, which, along with the Czech Republic, he used Tuesday as an example of Obama’s “abandonment of friends” because soon after taking office, the president reconfigured a George W. Bush-era missile-defense system to be based there.

Obama said the changes made the system more effective in stopping potential missile attacks from Iran or North Korea. At the same time, it was also more acceptable to Russia, which American hawks criticized as a sign of weakness toward a country whose ambitions are still suspect in the region.

Romney’s past characterization of Russia as the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe” also has drawn criticism from the Obama campaign, namely Vice President Biden, who has accused Romney of being trapped in a Cold War mentality.

In a statement issued by the campaign, Biden said: “All we heard from Governor Romney was empty rhetoric and bluster. He reflexively criticizes the President’s policies without offering any alternatives. When he does venture a position, it’s a safe bet that he previously took exactly the opposite position and will probably change his mind again and land in the wrong place — far out of the mainstream.” 

Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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