LEXINGTON, Va. — Mitt Romney delivered a broad critique of President Obama’s foreign policy record on Monday, as a new national poll showed a surge by the Republican challenger that put him even with and perhaps ahead of the incumbent with a month to go before the election.
Romney focused most of his criticism on Obama’s approach to the Middle East, saying that a withering of American resolve in the region has made it a more dangerous place than it was when the president took office nearly four years ago.
“Hope,” he said, “is not a strategy.’’
Romney gave a policy-by-policy accounting of what he said he would do differently, including arming Syria’s rebels, restoring the United States’ commitment to traditional allies, and increasing U.S. military spending to better project American force in Asia and the Middle East. Much of it he has said before, and some of it differs little from Obama’s approach. But more broadly, Romney outlined a more assertive American role in the world, and argued that it is a U.S. obligation to lead despite hard times at home.
Romney said he knows “the president hopes for a safer, freer and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope.” But he added: “We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds.”
The Romney and Obama campaigns have agreed for months that the election probably will be determined by which candidate is perceived as the most able to fix the weak economy. But Romney’s decision to speak about foreign policy as the race enters its decisive phase underscores his new confidence after a winning debate performance last week — and a sense that events in the Middle East have rendered Obama vulnerable in an area long perceived as a strength of his.
“As the American people are looking at what he had to say today, but also his record from the last few months, the areas that should be of concern are that this is somebody who leads with chest-pounding rhetoric,” Jen Psaki, the Obama campaign’s press secretary, told reporters after Romney’s speech. “He’s inexperienced. He’s been clumsy at his handling of foreign policy. And most of all, all of these factors lead to a risk that we’re going to go back to the same policies that led us to some of the challenges we faced in the last few years.”
But Romney appears ready to engage Obama on two fronts: the economy at home and the United States’ stature abroad. Both, Romney has argued, have suffered during Obama’s tenure. And new polling suggests that voters are increasingly apt to believe that the former Massachusetts governor may have the ideas to correct the problems he has identified.
The Pew Research Center released a national poll Monday that shows Romney leading Obama by four points — 49 percent to 45 percent — among likely voters. Romney trailed Obama by eight points among that group in a Pew poll taken last month, a few weeks before the first presidential debate.
The two candidates are even among registered voters with 46 percent each — the lowest mark for Obama in the Pew survey in more than a year.
Romney gained support in nearly every category — leadership, willingness to work with the other party and honesty, among others — and now leads Obama by seven points among registered voters on the question of which candidate has “new ideas.” He also jumped five points on who would make “wise decisions about foreign policy,” although Obama still leads on that question by four points. The survey polled 1,511 adults from Thursday through Sunday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
Amid a burst of momentum, Romney arrived in this swing state on Monday for his speech at the Virginia Military Institute. He addressed the violence in Libya and Egypt and told more than 400 cadets and invited guests that he would “change course in the Middle East,” including by taking a hard line on Iran and arming Syrian rebels.
The address mostly repackaged things Romney has said before, sometimes with greater precision. And he offered few concrete ways he would change the Obama administration’s current approach.
Although he made broad critiques of what he referred to as the president’s “passivity,” Romney did not call for any new armed intervention in any Middle East conflict.
“I believe that if America does not lead, others will,” he said, “others who do not share our interests and our values.”
Romney said Obama had failed reformist protesters in Iran in 2009 and is now failing the rebel forces in Syria who oppose President Bashar al-Assad. The United States is “sitting on the sidelines” instead of working with other nations to arm the rebels, he added.
Much of Romney’s address focused on the complex threat posed by Iran, but he did not propose solutions that differ from the Obama administration’s current policy of tightening sanctions and insisting that an Iranian nuclear bomb is intolerable.
Romney did not say whether he would continue the current international diplomatic effort to persuade Iran to back off the most worrisome elements of its nuclear program. Iran says the program is aimed only at peaceful nuclear energy and medical uses.
Romney spoke confidently, telling the audience that it is Obama’s “responsibility to use America’s great power to shape history — not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.”
He did not call for a new “red line” on Iran, as Israel has said it wants, and he did not specifically say he would be open to a future U.S. attack on Iran to stop it from acquiring “nuclear capability” so Israel doesn’t have to do it now. He did not mention the crippling effect that sanctions are having or call for regime change in Iran.
Romney said he would support Israel, the nation presumably most at risk if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, and charged that Obama’s sometimes tense relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has helped embolden Iran and other adversaries.
“I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security,” Romney said. “The world must never see any daylight between our two nations.”
That was a reference to a remark Obama reportedly made early in his administration to “put some daylight” between the United States and Israel. He has since pledged many times to support Israel, and his administration says ties between the two nations have never been stronger.
Romney said he would bulk up the U.S. naval presence around Iran, something the Obama administration has done occasionally. He said he would add to the Navy’s fleet, but did not say how he would pay for it. Romney also promised new conditions on foreign aid, including to Egypt.
“I will make it clear to the recipients of our aid that in return for our material support, they must meet the responsibilities of every decent, modern government,” Romney said.
He said Obama has “no trade agenda to speak of” and has signed no new bilateral trade deals. That is technically true, because the deals he signed with South Korea, Panama and Colombia were begun under Republican President George W. Bush.
The former CEO, in his comfort zone when focused on the economy, has stumbled during his occasional forays into foreign policy. He offended his British hosts and Palestinian leaders during an overseas trip in July, did not mention Afghanistan in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, and was roundly criticized for the timing of his assault on Obama’s handling of the violence in Libya.
With increasing questions about how the Obama administration has dealt with the attacks last month in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans — and with Romney gaining momentum from his widely praised performance last week in the first presidential debate — some experts said the speech was well timed.
But the Obama campaign, citing foreign policy achievements — including the killing of Osama bin Laden and the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq — was undeterred. Campaign officials have accused Romney of flip-flopping on the U.S. mission in Libya and troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, and have pointed out that on some issues, such as the Iranian nuclear program, Romney has outlined positions similar to Obama’s.
On Monday morning, the Obama campaign released a television ad that blasted Romney’s foreign policy credentials and said his “gaffe-filled” European tour in July showed his “reckless” and “amateurish” approach to international issues.
The candidates will debate the issue during their last one-on-one encounter, scheduled for Oct. 22.
Gearan reported from Washington. Scott Wilson and Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.