WASHINGTON -- Slamming President Obama for three years worth of "feckless policies," Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Friday morning laid out a vision of world affairs that trumpeted a return to American supremacy and hinted at a renewal of the doctrines of George W. Bush.
"God did not create this country to be a nation of followers," Romney said in an address at The Citadel, a military college in the early primary state of South Carolina. "America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will."
In a speech rife with warnings about "the very real dangers that America faces," Romney sought to deliver a message that world order might be best preserved through a dominant America, citing Ronald Reagan's calls for "peace through strength."
"If America is the undisputed leader of the world, it reduces our need to police a more chaotic world," he said.
In one particularly memorable passage, he also suggested that Obama has willingly squandered the superior posture he had inherited from his predecessor.
"I will never, ever apologize for America," Romney said at one point, in a clear jab at the president's much maligned "leading from behind" approach, and the popular GOP talking point that Obama has repeatedly apologized for America.
"I will not surrender America's role in the world," he said. "This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today."
Among the handful of specific proposals outlined in the speech was a reversal of "Obama-era" cuts to missile-defense programs and the Pentagon's budget, as well as plans to dramatically expand naval shipbuilding.
He also proposed a provocative escalation in the standoff with Iran, calling for the "regular presence" of two aircraft carrier task forces in the waters around Iran, including one in the eastern Mediterranean, amid a hot zone of contentious Middle Eastern nations.
The speech came on the heels of the announcement of a foreign policy team for Romney that contained many of the same Bush administration officials and aides who were most responsible for pushing that era's controversial policies, from torture and warrantless wiretapping to the war in Iraq.
Romney's top advisers on counterterrorism, for instance, are Michael Chertoff and Michael Hayden, Bush's former homeland security secretary and CIA director, respectively, who together oversaw many of the abuses in the domestic war on terror.
"There is a temptation, I understand, to try to compare what Governor Romney will try to talk about today with President Bush's articulation foreign policy," a Romney adviser said in a briefing with reporters before the speech. "And there certainly are elements of Governor Romney's agenda that have overlap with the values and the initiatives that President Bush pursued. ... But there is, we believe, a distinct articulation of America's role in the world."
Among those distinctions, advisers cited a new focus on Latin America and a re-emphasis on the utility of soft power.
"The United States will apply the full spectrum of hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict," Romney said at one point. "Resort to force is always the least desirable and costliest option. We must therefore employ all the tools of statecraft to shape the outcome of threatening situations before they demand military action."
But he went on, "The United States should always retain military supremacy to deter would-be aggressors and to defend our allies and ourselves."
And in a passage on the United Nations that was eerily reminiscent of Bush's rejection of an international "permission slip" during the lead-up to the war in Iraq, Romney stated, "Know this: While America should work with other nations, we always reserve the right to act alone to protect our vital national interests."
With Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, out of the presidential race, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry flagging in the polls, Romney hoped to use his foreign policy speech -- the first major such address of any of the GOP candidates -- as an opportunity to further elevate himself above the rest of the Republican field.
The rollout of a grand foreign policy statement comes at a time when Romney appears to have lapped his closest rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has yet to release a jobs plan and is struggling to show he can get up to speed on the nuances of policy.
Democratic groups were quick to slam Romney's speech as implausible -- with some pointing out that he never mentioned the battle against al-Qaida, an area in which the president has had substantial success -- and even the right came out with early critiques indicating that Romney still had a long way to go in securing the support of the conservative foreign policy establishment.
In a blog posting before the speech, the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka argued that Romney needed to "clarify" a number of seeming incongruities in his earlier statements, including his determination to protect the defense budget and his plans for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
"There are close to one trillion dollars in defense budget cuts on the table (including sequestration and budget cuts already baked in the cake)," Pletka wrote. "Some of your rivals for the nomination agree with those cuts, and many Republicans on the Hill voted for them... it's time to clarify."
Asked for her reaction after the speech, Pletka told HuffPost, "I thought it was a good speech. It was confident, which is important, and I thought it was principled, which has often been a rap on Romney. But it still left some questions out there."
Referring to Romney's ambiguous stance on Afghanistan, Pletka called this "the least satisfying part of the speech. I don't think he dissuades any concerns that many of us might have on that issue. I really don't know where he stands on that."
Asked about this discrepancy Friday, campaign advisers said only that they would defer to "the commanders on the ground."
"Afghanistan is very difficult, very difficult," one adviser said, "but the choice will not be made based on political considerations."
Meanwhile, in an op-ed published in Politico Friday, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose own presidential campaign has struggled to gain traction, lashed out at the expansive vision offered by Romney and called for a more restrained and fiscally sensible approach to American foreign policy.
"Simply advocating for more ships, more troops and more weapons isn't a viable foreign policy," Huntsman wrote. "We need more agility, more intelligence and more economic engagement with the world. It's time to erase the old map. End nation-building, engage our allies and fix our economic core."
Jon Ward contributed additional reporting.