Mitt Romney looked the part of commander in chief. In a crisply delivered speech before a bevy of flags at the Virginia Military Institute he looked, as the campaign planned, as if he might already be the president.
The speech, as expected, was an indictment of Obama’s failed leadership. Romney highlighted the career of George Marshall, a VMI graduate. (“General Marshall once said, ‘The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.’ Those words were true in his time — and they still echo in ours.”)
The focus on Libya was both effective and pronounced: “The attacks against us in Libya were not an isolated incident. They were accompanied by anti-American riots in nearly two dozen other countries, mostly in the Middle East, but also in Africa and Asia. Our embassies have been attacked. Our flag has been burned. Many of our citizens have been threatened and driven from their overseas homes by vicious mobs, shouting “Death to America.” These mobs hoisted the black banner of Islamic extremism over American embassies on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.” His criticism however was measured, avoiding a direct hit on the president’s honesty: “The blame for the murder of our people in Libya, and the attacks on our embassies in so many other countries, lies solely with those who carried them out — no one else. But it is the responsibility of our President to use America’s great power to shape history — not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama.”
He was careful to commend Obama for slaying Osama bin Laden, but he contrasted that success with failures on Iran and Syria. In one of his strongest passages, he asserted: “Iran today has never been closer to a nuclear weapons capability. It has never posed a greater danger to our friends, our allies, and to us. And it has never acted less deterred by America, as was made clear last year when Iranian agents plotted to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in our nation’s capital. And yet, when millions of Iranians took to the streets in June of 2009, when they demanded freedom from a cruel regime that threatens the world, when they cried out, ‘Are you with us, or are you with them?’—the American President was silent.” And on Syria he likewise criticized the president’s passivity. (“The President has failed to lead in Syria, where more than 30,000 men, women, and children have been massacred by the Assad regime over the past 20 months. Violent extremists are flowing into the fight. Our ally Turkey has been attacked. And the conflict threatens stability in the region.”)
He also set forth his own vision. (“America must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in our might. No friend of America will question our commitment to support them … no enemy that attacks America will question our resolve to defeat them … and no one anywhere, friend or foe, will doubt America’s capability to back up our words.”) He was rather detailed for a campaign speech:
I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region— and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination. For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions — not just words — that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated.
I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security — the world must never see any daylight between our two nations.
I will deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf.
And I will roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense that would devastate our military. . . .
I will make further reforms to our foreign assistance to create incentives for good governance, free enterprise, and greater trade, in the Middle East and beyond. . . .
I will champion free trade and restore it as a critical element of our strategy, both in the Middle East and across the world. . . .
I will support friends across the Middle East who share our values, but need help defending them and their sovereignty against our common enemies.
In Libya, I will support the Libyan people’s efforts to forge a lasting government that represents all of them, and I will vigorously pursue the terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed Americans.
In Egypt, I will use our influence — including clear conditions on our aid — to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel. And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid.
In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. . . .
And in Afghanistan, I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war — and to potential attacks here at home — is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11. . . .
Finally, I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. . . .
It was a mature speech, less partisan than some would have expected, but reflecting perhaps newfound confidence that Romney is well-positioned to win the presidential race without delivering (another) knockout blow. He painted the United States as the indispensable but responsible leader in the world:
I know many Americans are asking a different question: “Why us?” I know many Americans are asking whether our country today — with our ailing economy, and our massive debt, and after 11 years at war — is still capable of leading.
I believe that if America does not lead, others will — others who do not share our interests and our values — and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us. America’s security and the cause of freedom cannot afford four more years like the last four years. I am running for President because I believe the leader of the free world has a duty, to our citizens, and to our friends everywhere, to use America’s great influence — wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively — to shape events in ways that secure our interests, further our values, prevent conflict, and make the world better — not perfect, but better.
Obama will have a hard time finding fault with the speech, and I suspect he has no desire to shift the focus back to such debacles as Libya. The speech certainly sets up the foreign policy debate at the end of the month: Can we afford any more leading from behind?