LEXINGTON, Va. - Mitt Romney today painted a dismal picture of President Obama's foreign policy during his years in the White House as the Republican candidate toughened his criticism of the administration's handling of the terrorist attack in Libya.
Romney said that as president he would ensure the Syrian rebels got the weapons they need and that he would take a firmer hand with Egypt and in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
"It is time to change course in the Middle East," said Romney.
The Republican presidential candidate took a hard line on the administration's actions around the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in a terror attack in Benghazi, Libya, last month. The Romney campaign is hoping to capitalize on what they believe to be a mishandling by the administration to accurately pinpoint the reason for the attacks or to have prevented them in the first place.
"As the dust settles, as the murdered are buried, Americans are asking how this happened, how the threats we face have grown worse, and what this calls on America to do," Romney said today to a crowd filled with cadets from the Virginia Military Institute.
"Unfortunately, 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 the attacks on the Benghazi consulate and other embassies in recent weeks "should not be seen as random acts. 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. And the fault lines of this struggle can be seen clearly in Benghazi itself."
The Obama administration initially said the Benghazi attack was the result of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim film, but eventually conceded it was a terror attack.
Romney said the attack was carried out by "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."
On the evening the attack was first reported, Romney drew criticism for accusing the Obama administration of "sympathizing" with the attackers before all the details of the attacks were known. It was not yet known at the time that Stevens had been killed. Romney, as well as his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, began receiving customary intelligence briefings organized by the Obama administration shortly thereafter, and Romney has so far been briefed twice.
Ahead of today's speech, Romney advisers anticipated that it would be a chance for Romney to "fill in more details" with respect to his own plan, in Libya and elsewhere. The speech comes a week before the next presidential debate, which will focus partially on foreign affairs, and two weeks before the final debate, which will focus entirely on the subject.
Romney outlined some of his plans for others areas in the Middle East.
"It is time to change course in the Middle East," said Romney. "That course should be organized around these bedrock principles: America must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in our might. No friend of America will question our commitment to support them, no enemy that attacks America will question our resolve to defeat them… and no one anywhere, friend or foe, will doubt America's capability to back up our words."
"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."
He those who receive aid from the U.S., including Egypt, "must meet the responsibilities of every decent modern government."
It is those conditions on U.S. aid, Romney said today, that he will use to "urge the new government to represent all Egyptians.
"And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid," he said.
In Syria, Romney said, "I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets…It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East."
The Obama administration has balked at sending arms and has discouraged others from sending heavy weapons that could end up in the arms of Islamic militants.
Romney also renewed his call for U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan to be completed by the end of 2014, taking a swipe at President Obama in doing so.
"I will affirm that my duty is not to protect my political prospects, but to protect the security of the nation," said Romney, who has long accused Obama's withdrawal plans as being politically motivated.
Romney cast doubt on the ability to establish a two-state solution between Palestinians and Israelis in a surreptitiously filmed video shot at a fundraiser earlier this year, in which he called such a scenario "unthinkable," but today Romney said 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 this old conflict, as in every challenge we face in the Middle East, only a new president will bring the chance to begin anew," Romney said today.
In a statement on the candidate's speech, Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said all Romney has offered on foreign policy is "bluster and platitudes."
"If Mitt Romney wants to have a debate about foreign policy, we have a message for him: bring it on," Smith said in a statement, going on to accuse him of "erratically" shifting positions on "every major foreign policy."