LEXINGTON, Va. — In what was billed as a major foreign policy address, Mitt Romney blasted President Obama’s leadership in the Middle East on Monday, saying that a withering of American resolve had made the region a more dangerous place where the United States has less leverage.
“Hope is not a strategy,’’ Romney said.
Romney sought to capitalize on the violence in Libya and Egypt that has made Obama vulnerable in the national security realm long seen as his strength. The Republican nominee vowed to “change course in the Middle East,” including by taking a hard line on Iran and arming Syrian rebels.
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 address mostly repackaged things Romney has said before, sometimes with greater precision. The Republican offered few specific ways he would change the Obama administration’s current approach.
Although he made broad critiques of Obama’s “passivity,” Romney did not call for any new armed intervention in any Mideast conflict.
“I believe that if America does not lead, others will,” Romney said, “others who do not share our interests and our values.”
Romney did say Obama failed reformist protesters in Iran in 2009, and is failing the anti-Assad forces in Syria now. The United States is “sitting on the sidelines,” instead of working with other nations to arm Syrian rebels, Romney said.
Much of Romney’s address focused on the complex threat posed by Iran, but he did not propose specific 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 claims the program is aimed only at peaceful nuclear energy and medical uses.
Romney, speaking in confident and crisp tones before an audience of more than 400 cadets and invited guests at Virginia Military Institute, said 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.”
Romney 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, in the future, to a U.S. attack on Iran to stop them from acquiring “nuclear capability” so Israel doesn’t have to do it now. He did not mention the crippling effect sanctions are having now, and he didn’t call for regime change in Iran.
The speech at VMI thrust foreign policy further into the center of a campaign that until recently had been almost entirely about the economy. The focus is expected to intensify as the two candidates debate foreign policy during their last one-on-one encounter, on Oct. 22.
Romney said he would support Israel, the nation presumably most at risk if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, and charged that Obama’s poor relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has help 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 to “put some daylight” between the United States and Israel early in his administration. Obama has since pledged many times to support Israel and his administration claims 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 on an ad hoc basis. 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, since the deals he signed with South Korea, Panama and Colombia were begun under Republican President George W. Bush.
Free trade deals are often politically unpopular among key Democratic constituencies such as labor groups. Although Obama had used mild anti-free-trade rhetoric during the 2008 campaign, he has pointed to those three deals and another in the works with Asia as accomplishments.
Romney said Obama had failed to secure a deal to keep some troops in Iraq, and promised that he would manage the coming U.S. exit from Afghanistan with national security, not politics, as his guide.
The Obama campaign quickly criticized the speech as a patchwork of overheated rhetoric and outdated ideas.
“I just find him very shallow,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a conference call arranged by the Obama campaign. Romney’s views on Russia, for example, seem rooted in the last century and infirmed by the most conservative of his circle of foreign policy advisers, Albright said.
“I’m beginning to think that Governor Romney just doesn’t have the facts,” Albright said.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the address Romney’s seventh attempt to reboot his foreign policy vision.
“This is somebody who leads with chest-pounding rhetoric. He’s inexperienced. He’s been clumsy of his handling of foreign policy,” Psaki said.
Romney spoke in a small auditorium at the military school, behind a U.S. flag and several military flags. A group of several hundred white-uniformed cadets filled the seats, mixing with a few dozen invited guests. Patriotic and military music played in the background.
Romney stuck to his prepared text and did not ad lib.
The former CEO and Massachusetts governor, in his comfort zone when focused on the economy, has stumbled during his occasional forays into foreign policy.
It has been the unscripted or hurried moments that have caused Romney, who has little foreign policy experience, the most trouble.
Even many Republicans were critical after Romney slammed Obama’s handling of the attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, even as the events were unfolding. The Sept. 11 assault in Libya killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Romney has mounted a sustained attack on Obama’s leadership ever since, as questions have mounted over the administration’s shifting explanations of the attack and whether the U.S. post was properly secured.
He offended his British hosts and Palestinian leaders during an overseas trip in July, failed to 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 violence in Libya.
With increasing questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the violence in Libya that killed four Americans — and with Romney gaining momentum from his widely praised performance in last week’s first debate — some experts think the speech is well-timed.
Though Obama has consistently outpolled Romney on foreign affairs, that advantage has diminished. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted just before the first debate showed Obama with a five-point edge in who is more trusted to handle international concerns, down from the president’s double-digit advantage earlier in the year.
“It’s understandable why he’s doing it now,” said David Rothkopf, a former senior Clinton administration official who is chief executive of Foreign Policy magazine. “The administration, which two to three months ago seemed unassailable on foreign policy and national security issues, now looks much more vulnerable because of what happened in Libya, because the entire Middle East is a mess, because of tensions between Obama and Netanyahu.”
In a series of speeches that began during the Republican primary campaign, Romney has proposed a more confrontational approach to China, Russia and other countries, and he accused Obama of failing to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, offending Israel, and jeopardizing the U.S. military with budget cuts that Republican congressional leaders have supported.
Advised by veterans of the Reagan and both Bush administrations, Romney has also used blunt, sometimes swaggering language on the stump that has at times evoked the Cold War, including his pledge to “devote myself to an American century.”
But Romney’s description of Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe” has drawn criticism, and his overseas trip in July, intended to showcase Romney as a world leader and potential commander in chief, was widely seen as plagued by missteps. Romney, in an interview, questioned Britain’s readiness for the Olympic Games it was about to host, drawing rebukes from British leaders and a tabloid headline labeling him “Mitt the Twit.’’
He then angered Palestinian leaders by suggesting that the Israeli economy has outpaced that of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture,’’ while also vastly misstating the difference in gross domestic product between Israel and Palestinian areas. Romney advisers argued at the time that the trip had been successful, pointing out the candidate’s generally positive reception in Israel and an endorsement from former Polish president and pro-democracy icon Lech Walesa.
The Obama campaign, citing foreign policy achievements including the killing of Osama bin Laden and the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, is 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 the lack of new policy prescriptions. They also say most people don’t vote based on foreign policy, though it may be seen more broadly as part of a leadership test.
The Obama campaign released a television ad Monday 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.
Gearan reported from Washington. Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.