Romney foreign-policy speech takes tough tone but proposes few changes

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LEXINGTON, Va. -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney slammed his rival's international strategy as weak during a speech Monday at Virginia Military Institute.

But many of the remarks in his critique didn't pass the truth test, and despite his tough tone, the foreign policy positions he outlined hewed close to those already held by President Barack Obama.

"I believe that if America does not lead, others will -- others who do not share our interests and our values -- and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us," Mr. Romney said. "America's security and the cause of freedom cannot afford four more years like the last four years."

The speech lambasted Mr. Obama's response to the Arab Spring, specifically his administration's handling of the violent Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

"I want to be very clear: The blame for the murder of our people in Libya, and the attacks on our embassies in so many other countries, lies solely with those who carried them out -- no one else," Mr. Romney said. "But it is our responsibility and 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 address before more than 500 Virginia Military Institute cadets and local supporters in Lexington, Va., the former Massachusetts governor made his case to voters that he would be a more capable commander-in-chief than Mr. Obama.

"We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut, when we have no trade agenda to speak of, and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership, but of passivity," Mr. Romney said.

He said Mr. Obama "missed an historic opportunity" to provide leadership during a time of great Middle East upheaval.

As president, Mr. Romney said, he would work with U.S. partners to arm rebels in Syria, make aid to Egypt conditional on development of democratic institutions as well as peace with Israel and advocate an independent Palestinian state coexisting with Israel.

Coming off a strong performance last week in a debate with Mr. Obama that centered on domestic policy, Mr. Romney is looking to boost his reputation in international relations, the topic of a debate coming Oct. 22. Although voters often don't base decisions on foreign policy, Mr. Romney's line of attack Monday dovetailed with his campaign's overarching narrative that Mr. Obama is a weak leader.

Mr. Romney's most serious speech charge was that the president's national security strategy is "not one of partnership, but of passivity," said Karl Inderfurth, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public-policy research institution. In reading a copy of the speech, Mr. Inderfurth said, he was reminded of the old political catchphrase "Where's the beef?"

"I think it's fair to ask Gov. Romney: What's his beef?" said Mr. Inderfurth, who was an assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. "He basically endorses President Obama's approach on Iran, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and creating a Palestinian state, all the hot-button issues. His rhetoric is critical, but his actual policy prescriptions are quite in line with Obama."

Qataris and Saudis already are arming the Syrian rebels, for example, and the CIA has people in Turkey trying to determine which groups will receive weapons. Egyptian aid always has been tied to its peace treaty with Israel, and a two-state Israel-Palestinian solution aligns with long-standing U.S. policy.

But Mr. Romney's assertion that he would "recommit" the United States to "a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel" contrasts with his remarks captured in a video of a private Florida fundraiser earlier this year. In the video, Mr. Romney said he had believed for some time that "the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish."

On Afghanistan, Mr. Romney said in Monday's speech that he would heed military commanders' advice and implement a "real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014." That timeline matches Mr. Obama's exit strategy.

Mr. Romney pledged to toughen sanctions on Iran and said he would tighten measures already in force aimed at coercing Tehran to halt its uranium enrichment program, which the United States and other powers contend is aimed at developing the ability to produce nuclear warheads. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.

Mr. Obama has won European Union, Chinese and Russian support for four rounds of U.N. sanctions, and the United States and the EU have imposed their own stricter measures. Taken together, the sanctions are the toughest ever slapped on Iran since its nuclear program came to light in 2002 after 18 years of concealment.

Mr. Romney said he would increase pressure on Iran by restoring a "permanent presence" of U.S. aircraft-carrier task forces in the eastern Mediterranean. But there is almost always a carrier task force in the 5th Fleet region of the Persian Gulf, and often there are two -- as there are today, according to the U.S. Navy website.

Mr. Romney accused Mr. Obama of failing "to offer tangible support" to fledgling governments that succeeded the overthrown dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. This is inaccurate. The Obama administration has provided more than $200 million in aid to Libya since the uprising that toppled the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi began in January 2011, according to a report Aug. 9 by the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress.

Those funds have included $89 million in humanitarian assistance and $40 million for a program in which the United States is buying heavy weapons looted from armories during the uprising to prevent them from falling into terrorists' hands.

The United States has provided more than $300 million to Tunisia since dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's ouster in January 2011, according to the State Department. The funds have helped Tunisia pay its foreign debt, raise money and boost employment and private enterprise.

Egypt remains one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance, receiving $250 million in economic aid and $1.3 billion in military support annually. A House Appropriations subcommittee chairwoman, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, last month said she was blocking $450 million in aid to Egypt amid growing discord with newly elected President Mohammed Morsi's government.

Mr. Romney suggested that Mr. Obama is responsible for "rising violence, a resurgent al-Qaida, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad and the rising influence of Iran" in Iraq because of "the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence."

All U.S. forces were required to be out of Iraq by last Dec. 31 under a timetable the Republican George W. Bush administration negotiated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki's government, and that the Iraqi parliament overwhelmingly approved on Nov. 27, 2008.

Mr. Romney also criticized Mr. Obama as failing to promote new foreign markets for U.S. goods, and asserted that the president had signed no new free-trade agreements in four years. "I will reverse that failure," he said.

Mr. Obama signed free-trade pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia on Oct. 21, 2011. The accords were the largest package of such accords signed in 17 years. They had been negotiated by the Bush administration and revised by the Obama administration to include labor rights assurances from Colombia, a tax information exchange with Panama and an automobile tariffs overhaul with South Korea.

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