In his first major foreign policy address in more than nine months, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, sidestepped a key opportunity to attack President Barack Obama's approach to the crisis in Syria, and instead reserved his strongest blows for a matter of domestic national security: the leaking of classified information to reporters.
"Whoever provided classified information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration, must be exposed, dismissed and punished," Romney said early in his speech Tuesday at the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev. "The time for stonewalling is over."
The address offered Romney his first chance to answer lingering questions about his mostly-vague critique of Obama's foreign policy, and to stake out his positions ahead of a six-day international tour that begins on Wednesday. The trip will bring Romney to England, Poland and Israel, where -- especially in the latter two countries -- he hopes to draw a strong contrast between himself and a president who some believe has been insufficiently supportive of those allies.
"Since I wouldn't venture into another country to question American foreign policy, I will tell you right here -- before I leave -- what I think of this administration's shabby treatment of one of our finest friends," Romney said, in a portion of the speech criticizing Obama's policies toward Israel. "The people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world. And the chorus of accusations, threats and insults at the United Nations should never again include the voice of the president of the United States."
By and large, the thrust of Romney's address was a rhetorical attack on Obama's leadership, charging -- as he had in his first foreign policy address last October, at The Citadel -- that the president had sought to weaken America's international standing and influence, and that with bold action, Romney would restore it.
"When it comes to national security and foreign policy, as with our economy, the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunity," Romney said. "I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. I am not ashamed of American power. I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict and hope where there was affliction and despair."
But as Romney delivered his address, his press shop distributed to reporters a copy of the same foreign policy white paper that he originally published back in October, and he did not take up the opportunity to clarify where, precisely, he would break with the president over America's role in the world.
This was most glaring on the subject of Syria, where the debate over whether the U.S. can and should intervene in the ongoing military crisis there has reached a critical point.
In recent days, many conservative voices on foreign policy have called on Obama to take stronger action to support the Syrian rebels, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who on Monday called for the president to send more arms to the fighters. On Tuesday, a collection of neoconservatives associated with the Foreign Policy Initiative endorsed a petition asking Obama to help create -- by military force, in all likelihood -- "safe zones" within the country for refugees to retreat.
Romney mentioned Syria only once in his speech -- in an aside about Russia's continued support for the regime of President Bashar Assad.
On his campaign website, Romney lays out some more specifics about how the U.S. ought to toughen its approach to Syria, although many of the prescriptions -- including encouraging allies to "call on Syria's military to protect civilians rather than attack them" -- seem outdated given the latest developments there.
He was equally parsimonious on a number of other key foreign policy issues, including on China, where he broadly called for a tougher line on currency fixing; on Egypt, where he said foreign aid should come with conditions; and on Afghanistan, where he essentially endorsed Obama's 2014 withdrawal strategy, although added that he would have preferred to see more troops stay through this summer.
Romney did offer a new detail on his approach to Iran's nuclear enrichment dreams: he said that the country should be permitted no enrichment whatsoever, even for peaceful purposes -- a break from the negotiating positions held by American and European deliberators.
"As it is, the Iranian regime claims the right to enrich nuclear material for supposedly peaceful purposes," Romney said. "This claim is discredited by years of deception. A clear line must be drawn: There must be a full suspension of any enrichment, without exception, period."
One issue in Romney's address that did break ground -- and could have significant traction against Obama, should he choose to pursue it -- came not on a foreign policy matter but on a more domestic issue of national security: whether the president or his administration was behind the recent leaks to reporters of classified information about America's plans in Iran and other parts of the Middle East.
Several members of congress have called for investigations and hearings into the sources of the leaks, which have lead to a number of explosive stories, many bolstering the administration's image as tough on foreign policy.
At a public event on Monday, even a top Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), appeared to accuse the White House of being behind the leaks, saying, "I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks."
On Tuesday, Romney joined those calls, citing Feinstein's remarks and adding -- in a manner reminiscent of the brewing Fast and Furious scandal -- that the matter should be investigated by a special counsel.
"It is not enough to say the matter is being looked into, and leave it at that," Romney said. "Exactly who in the White House betrayed these secrets? Did a superior authorize it? These are things that Americans are entitled to know -- and they are entitled to know right now."
In a statement distributed to reporters shortly after Romney's speech, Feinstein backtracked from her initial charge, saying that she "did not believe the president leaked classified information," and offering her regret about having "speculated beyond that."