LEXINGTON, Va. – Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Monday accused President Obama of “passive” leadership in the Middle East in a foreign-policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute. “Hope is not a strategy,” the Republican nominee said, attacking the president’s 2008 campaign slogan of “hope and change.”
Romney called for more direct intervention in Syria, including making sure anti-government opposition forces have weapons. And while he emphasized that the responsibility for the murder of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, lies solely with those who carried out the attack, Romney also criticized the Obama administration for its initial focus on an anti-Islamic video as the trigger for an attack.
In addition, Romney argued at VMI that Obama has failed both Israel and the Palestinians. “What should be a negotiation process has devolved into a series of heated disputes at the” United Nations, he said. “In this old conflict, as in every challenge we face in the Middle East, only a new president will bring the chance to begin anew.”
The renewed focus on foreign policy comes after several weeks of unrest in the Middle East resulting in widespread protests, attacks on multiple American embassies, and the deadly attacks in Benghzai. Romney called the recent attacks “expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East” and argue for changing course in the region.
Romney, who has little foreign policy experience on his resume, has been criticized for some of his previous statements on international affairs. An overseas trip he took in July was largely overshadowed by negative reaction to comments he made about England’s lack of preparation for the Olympics and a perceived slight of Palestinians, whom he implied were culturally inferior to their Jewish neighbors. He took heat for an inaccurate, premature attack on the Obama administration as events were unfolding in Libya. Most recently, he offended Spanish leaders when he said in the debate that he doesn’t want the U.S. to “go down the path of Spain.” Some of these missteps are featured in a new Obama campaign ad and video.
The VMI speech was an opportunity to make “voters comfortable with Romney as commander in chief,” said Republican strategist and former McCain adviser Ford O'Connell. He pointed to a recent Gallup poll that shows Obama with higher foreign policy approval ratings than Romney and said the goal of the speech was also to “close that gap a little bit.”
Here are some of the foreign policy areas Romney addressed:
Romney criticized the administration for what he framed as a failure to acknowledge the obvious, that the attacks in Libya were the work of terrorists – not spontaneous reactions to a video.
“The attack on our Consulate there on September 11th, 2012 was likely the work of forces affiliated with those that attacked our homeland on September 11th, 2001. This latest assault can’t be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration’s attempts to convince us of that for so long,” Romney said. “No, as the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West.”
Romney said that he will support “the Libyan people’s efforts to forge a lasting government that represents all of them,” while also pursuing those who attacked the consulate. This position is the same as Obama’s.
Romney called for the United States to help arm the Syrian opposition. “In Syria, I’ll work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and then ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets,” Romney said. He stopped short of saying the U.S. itself would supply arms to the opposition.
His position is similar to Obama’s. The administration is providing non-lethal aid such as intelligence, and The New York Times reported that the CIA is helping allies route arms to fighters who are not terrorists.
“I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I’ll restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf —and I’ll work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination,” Romney said.
The Obama administration has imposed unilateral financial and energy sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, in addition to wrangling four sets of sanctions imposed by the United Nations since 2006. The sanctions are partially responsible for the Iranian currency dropping by almost 40 percent in value in the past week and are having “significant” effects on the Iranian people, according to United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon.
Romney, who just this week conceded that the Afghan surge, approved by Obama in 2009, was a success, called for “a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.” He explicitly left open the prospect of a longer U.S. presence.
“I’ll evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders,” Romney said. “And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation.”
U.S. troops are already in the process of training Afghan forces and handing off security responsibilities to them by the end of 2014. In March Obamae said U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by then, although he also said he had signed an agreement with the Afghanistan government pledging continued U.S. security and training assistance for a decade longer.
Romney has criticized the president for setting a public deadline and disregarding calls by some commanders to allow some troops to stay beyond that deadline.
Romney said the relationship between the United States and Israel has “suffered great strains” under the Obama administration and argued that the President “explicitly stated that his goal was to put ‘daylight’ between the United States and Israel.” Romney was referring to a meeting with Jewish leaders early on in his presidency when Obama is reported to have said, “When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”
Romney said that he will “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.”
In a video of remarks at a private fundraiser that was recently released by Mother Jones magazine, Romney says he is torn by two perspectives of the conflict. On one hand he describes a view that he’s “had for some time, which is that the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace.” Romney goes onto say that in this line of thinking you have to “sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”
But he also tells the donors that he had heard from a former secretary of state who believes there is a prospect for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. “I always keep open the idea,” he concluded in the taped remarks.