By Dan Robinson
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Monday that he would be a strong president internationally if elected next month. He used a speech at the Virginia Military Institute in the southeastern state of Virginia to accuse his Democratic rival President Barack Obama of weakness in foreign affairs.
The Obama campaign immediately responded with criticism of its own.
Romney sought to clarify for voters how he would conduct U.S. foreign policy as president – in contrast to what he calls President Obama’s weak leadership in global affairs.
He focused mostly on the Middle East, where Mr. Romney said attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities, including one that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were not random acts, but “expressions of a larger struggle” playing out in the region.
The former Massachusetts governor said that after some time, President Obama “finally conceded” that the Libya attack was likely the work of terrorists. Romney accused the president of failing to lead.
“I want to be very clear. 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 said.
Romney said that, as president, he would support friends who share America’s values and set “clear conditions” for U.S. foreign aid.
On Egypt, he said he would encourage the government to represent all Egyptians, build democratic institutions, and maintain its peace treaty with Israel.
Romney accused Obama of failing to lead with respect to Syria. He stopped short of saying he would directly arm rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s government. But Romney said he would do everything to facilitate such aid and build influence with Syria’s future leaders.
“I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values, and then ensure that they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters and fighter jets,” he said.
Romney also criticized President Obama on the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, and on U.S. relations with Israel. He accused Obama of seeking to distance the United States from Israel.
The Republican presidential candidate vowed to make clear to Iran that its pursuit of a nuclear weapon “will not be tolerated.” President Obama also has vowed that Iran will not be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon.
Romney said he would permit no flexibility with Russia on the issue of missile defense. He also criticized Obama administration policies toward what he called an “assertive” China, and vowed to rebuild global U.S. military strength.
Romney said the “abrupt withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Iraq has brought more violence there and an eroding of democracy. And he accused Obama of a “politically timed retreat” in Afghanistan.
There were swift White House and Obama campaign responses to the Romney speech.
Obama campaign official Ben LaBolt said public opinion surveys show Obama leading Romney on leadership in national security, among other things, because of the responsible ending of the Iraq war, and the decimation of al-Qaida and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Madeleine Albright, who served as U.S. Secretary of State under Democratic President Bill Clinton, called some of Romney’s points, particularly on trade issues, “dead wrong.”
On the Middle East, she said Romney’s speech raised questions about “what he would do differently and whether he understands what is going on in the Arab world and how to deal with it.”
“It is probably a speech that to those who are not totally into foreign policy sounds pretty good. But I think it is really full of platitudes and free of substance – you know, peace through strength, clarity, resolve. Those [ideas] really are not foreign policy,” she said.
Analysts say it is unclear whether Romney’s foreign policy address will boost his public opinion ratings in a campaign where the U.S. economy is dominant issue.
Romney has benefited from President Obama’s weak performance in last week’s presidential debate. Surveys show him narrowing Obama’s lead nationally and in key political swing states.