by Gregory Korte, USA TODAY, LEXINGTON, Va. — Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney attacked President Obama on Monday for being too passive on the world stage and ceding American leadership to others. But in the litany of specifics he offered, it was unclear how a Romney administration would change course.
Romney criticized Obama for trying to put “daylight” between the United States and Israel — but espoused the two-state solution with an independent Palestine that has been the national policy since the George W. Bush administration.
In regards to Afghanistan, Romney said he wouldn’t let politics dictate policy but said he would also “pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014” — the same deadline Obama has given.
Romney said he would condition aid to Egypt on the new post-Mubarak regime’s continued peace with Israel and respect for human rights — strings the Obama campaign said are already attached.
And while his saber rattled loudest at Iran — pledging to move two carrier groups within striking distance should Iran develop a nuclear weapon — Romney said he would continue and escalate the Obama administration’s economic sanctions.
“I watched the speech with great interest trying to figure out what Gov. Romney’s policies really are,” said former secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking for the Obama campaign. “But I think I’ve come out more confused.”
For all the rhetoric on both sides, the candidates are farther apart in tone than they are on substance, said James McCormick, chairman of the political science department at Iowa State University. For example: Obama uses the word “partnership,” while Romney uses the word “leadership.”
Romney said he shared Obama’s hopes for a “safer, freer and a more prosperous” Middle East allied with the United States. “But hope is not a strategy,” he said.
“That’s the kind of difference you can see,” said McCormick, editor of The Domestic Sources of American Foreign Policy. “They’re nuanced differences.”
Romney’s speech, delivered to more than 500 cadets and faculty in white dress uniforms at the Virginia Military Institute, won the day’s headlines and served to momentarily refocus the campaign on foreign policy. Obama spent most of his day raising money in California.
It was the seventh major foreign policy speech of the Romney campaign, and seized on events that have occurred since his speech in August to the American Legion convention in Indianapolis. Most notably: the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi last month. Romney said blame for the attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates “lies solely with those who carried them out,” but said Obama was “leading from behind” and “leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.”
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt called Romney’s response to Ambassador Chris Stevens’ death as “unseemly.”
“The American people don’t want a commander in chief who jumps at the chance to politicize a national tragedy,” LaBolt said.
Romney has reason to shift the conversation to foreign policy in an election campaign largely about the economy, McCormick said: Polls have generally shown that the public approves of Obama’s handling of foreign policy — although Libya may provide a crack in that armor.
A foreign policy debate is scheduled for Oct. 22 in Florida, which could take on even more significance. As a challenger, Romney needs to demonstrate confidence and competence necessary for Americans to envision him as a commander in chief.
In Virginia, a crucial swing state where four polls taken in the past week are evenly split, one in eight voters is a veteran — one of the highest populations in the nation.
Romney delivered Monday’s address at VMI, a state-supported military college on a historic pre-Civil War campus in the Shenandoah Valley. He chose the site not just because it’s in a battleground state, but also because its most famous graduate was George C. Marshall, the soldier-diplomat responsible for rebuilding Europe after World War II.
John Dommert, a 21-year-old VMI cadet from Chester, Va., who intends to seek a commission with the Marine Corps, said he heard in Romney’s speech a more complete vision for an active U.S. involvement in the Middle East and the world — and he and his buddies are comfortable with that.
“It’s very fitting to come to a school that’s producing a bunch of military leaders about foreign policy,” he said. “We’ve all grown up in a time of war, so it’s very near and dear to us.”
Romney continued his appeal to military voters Monday at a rally in the naval port city of Newport News, Va.
In an airport hangar outside Toledo, Ohio, Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, followed upwith an even more hawkish indictment of Obama’s foreign policy.
“If you go home after this and turn on your TV, you will likely see the failures of the Obama foreign policy unfolding before our eyes,” Ryan said. “The Middle East is in turmoil. Nearly two dozen nations we witness on our television screens were burning our flags in protest in riots. You see, if we project weakness abroad, our adversaries are that much more willing to test us, to question our resolve, and our allies are more hesitant to trust us.”
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