LEXINGTON, Va. -- Mitt Romney launched a broad attack on Monday against what he termed President Obama's failure "to shape history" in the Middle East, but he found himself walking a fine line between criticizing the president he is running against and avoiding any endorsement of the type of international interventions undertaken by the most recent president from his own party, George W. Bush, whom he rarely mentions.
Mr. Romney urged arming the rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria so that they can "defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters and fighter jets" -- a step that would go well beyond the president's decision to provide only nonlethal aid.
But speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, Mr. Romney stopped short of saying that the United States itself should provide the arms to the rebels directly, or get involved on the ground. Nor did he explain how he would handle what in the White House is termed "the Afghanistan problem": that arms provided to the rebels could, in the wrong hands, be used against Americans in the future.
Similarly, the former Massachusetts governor assailed Mr. Obama for withdrawing troops from Iraq precipitously, saying the "costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al Qaeda" and Iran. But again he stopped short of proposing that the United States intervene again if its interests are threatened -- a recognition of the political reality that Americans, polls show, have no interest in returning to the place where thousands of American lives were lost and hundreds of billions of dollars spent.
And even while sharply criticizing the administration's slowness to acknowledge that a terror attack had been behind the killing of the American ambassador and three others in Libya, he called for a vigorous search for the assailants and support for the Libyan government -- but said nothing about putting more Americans on the ground.
In short, as Danielle Pletka wrote on Monday in an Op-Ed page article in The New York Times, the goal of the speech was straightforward: "Mr. Romney needs to persuade people that he's not simply a George W. Bush retread, eager to go to war in Syria and Iran and answer all the mail with an F-16."
But Mr. Romney's larger goal, his aides said, was to discuss missed opportunities in the Obama foreign policy and to argue that killing Osama bin Laden and conducting drone strikes in Pakistan at record rates does not constitute a strategy. "The greater tragedy of it all is that we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East -- friends who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us," he said.
Mr. Romney seemed most incisive when he made the case that Mr. Obama had insufficiently supported emerging democracies in the Middle East. Echoing an argument heard by some human rights advocates, he said Mr. Obama did little to follow up his promises of aid to emerging democracies with real action -- or real money.
"Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our president is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity," he said. "As one Syrian woman put it, 'We will not forget that you forgot about us.' "
In other areas, like Iran, he had a far harder time drawing distinctions. Mr. Romney said the president's reliance on economic sanctions had failed to slow its march to a nuclear weapons capability. That is indisputably true: Iran had enough fuel for one weapon when Mr. Obama came to office, and now has enough, with further enrichment, to make upward of six.
But the Republican candidate, like Mr. Bush after the invasion of Iraq, stopped well short of promising to join Israel in military action. Instead he said he would "put the leaders of Iran on notice" that the United States, along with "friends and allies," would halt Iran's progress, beginning with a show of military force.
"I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the eastern Mediterranean and the gulf," Mr. Romney said. "For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions -- not just words -- that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated."
Mr. Obama has usually kept two carrier task forces in the Persian Gulf for the past year. Mr. Romney went further, seeming to tie America's decisions about whether and when to take military action to decisions made in Israel.
"The world must never see any daylight between our two nations," he said. He left open the question of how he would handle the relationship when national interests diverge, and some Middle East experts have described that formulation as having the potential to lead the United States into war, given the bellicose statements the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has made about Iran.
The Obama campaign pushed back aggressively on Mr. Romney's address, beginning early in the day, when excerpts from the speech were released.
"Full of platitude and free of substance," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sniffed during a teleconference call arranged by the Obama campaign to rebut Mr. Romney's speech.
"How's he going to turn the page on the failed policies in Iraq if he wants to keep 20,000 troops in Iraq?" added Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign.
Trip Gabriel reported from Lexington, and David E. Sanger from Washington. Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Keene, Calif.nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.