WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney sought to seize political momentum on a new front Monday, delivering a robust foreign policy speech that included a few new specifics and a sharp critique of the current U.S. course in the Middle East.
In the speech, Romney's third major address on foreign policy during the campaign, the Republican presidential nominee moved incrementally toward a more detailed outline of his potential policies as president and commander in chief, including calling for providing arms to elements of the Syrian opposition.
Romney also increased his criticism of President Barack Obama's foreign policy, seeking to build on recent unsettling incidents across the Middle East -- including an attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens dead -- to portray the president as either unable or unwilling to gain control in that volatile region.
"This president's policies have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East," Romney said in his speech at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Va. "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."
In the past few weeks, a wave of unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has refocused public attention on foreign policy, bringing renewed criticism of Obama's handling of a region where al Qaeda can still mount attacks. Until recently, the U.S. use of targeted drone strikes and killing of Osama bin Laden had allowed Obama to proclaim that the threat of international terrorism was greatly diminished. Romney sought to characterize the recent attacks as evidence that al Qaeda remains strong, a relevant force in a broader contest of values from which the United States has largely withdrawn.
"The attacks on America last month should not be seen as random acts," Romney said. "They are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East, a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century."
In significant part, the distinction Romney appeared to draw between himself and Obama was one of tone. Whereas the president's approach has been one of "passivity" and indifference, Romney argued, his would be aggressive and dominant, including tougher sanctions on Iran and "no flexibility with Vladimir Putin" over missile defense.
"I know the president hopes for a safer, freer and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States," Romney said. "I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy."
Romney also provided some specifics on how he would handle the various crises in the region.
He said, not for the first time, that he would seek to use strict conditions on U.S. aid to influence the newly elected government in Egypt and reiterated his criticism of Obama's explicit timeline for withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, promising to adjust the plan according to recommendations from U.S. generals.
"President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war," Romney said. "But the route to more war -- and to potential attacks here at home -- is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11."
He pledged to "recommit" the U.S. to the goal of "a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state" beside Israel, reversing finally the ambiguity left by remarks secretly recorded this past spring, when he seemed to suggest that a negotiated peace between Palestine and Israel was impossible and not worth pursuing.
As for Syria, Romney embraced a more aggressive posture: He said the U.S. should assist "those members of the opposition who share our values" in acquiring the weapons they need to combat the "tanks, helicopters and fighter jets" of President Bashar Assad.
The U.S. already supports efforts by Saudi Arabia and other countries to arm the rebels. Romney stopped short of endorsing a direct American role in the conflict.
The contrast between Romney's seeming discomfort with the instability in Libya -- he once decried U.S. involvement as "mission creep and mission muddle" -- and his call for more aggressive intervention in Syria seems to capture what The New York Times described Monday as a sharply divided foreign policy team within Romney's campaign.
In a briefing for reporters on Sunday, his foreign policy advisers sought to portray Romney's overall outlook as "bipartisan" with roots in the policies of former presidents like Bill Clinton and Harry Truman. The use and threat of force in this way is "a bipartisan tradition," said Romney adviser Richard Williamson in the call. "It's a recognition that strength is not provocative, weakness is provocative." He added, "That is a much different approach than Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama."
One name that did not come up during that call, or during Romney's speech at VMI, was that of the last Republican president to embrace an expansive vision for American foreign policy: George W. Bush.
But in Romney's decision to deliver his address at VMI, at least one observer saw a resonance with a speech given there by then President Bush in early 2002, in which Bush sharply reversed his limited goals for Afghanistan and described a vision for U.S. intervention in the Middle East that divided the region neatly between allies and enemies.
"In the Middle East, where acts of terror have triggered mounting violence, all parties have a choice to make," Bush said at the time. "Every leader, every state must choose between two separate paths: the path of peace or the path of terror."
"What they're really talking about is a return to the foreign policy of George W. Bush," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and part of a loose team of foreign policy advisers to the Obama campaign. "The fact that they're doing it in the same place as Bush spoke is pretty amazing. That was the start of a very weak period for the Bush administration's foreign policy, and it really damaged America's standing in the world."
On Monday, Romney seemed to lean, at least somewhat, toward that black-and-white vision of the world when he spoke of the 2009 democracy movement in Iran, on which conservatives have accused Obama of turning his back.
"When millions of Iranians took to the streets in June of 2009, when they demanded freedom from a cruel regime that threatens the world, when they cried out, 'Are you with us, or are you with them?' -- the American president was silent," Romney said.