WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney uncorked a withering broadside against what he called President Obama’s “feckless’’ foreign policy yesterday and detailed his own plans, which position the GOP presidential contender as a champion of a muscular military policy and an aggressive global reach.
“I will not surrender America’s role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I’m not your president. You have that president today,’’ the former Massachusetts governor said in what his campaign called a major foreign policy address at The Citadel in South Carolina.
In addition to the criticism aimed at the president, as well as barely concealed jabs at his fellow GOP candidates, Romney laid out an eight-point foreign policy platform that he pledged to undertake in his first 100 days as president.
Some of the elements centered on building America’s military might, including accelerating the construction of Navy vessels and reinvigorating the nation’s missile defense program. On Thursday, Romney had also called for boosting troop levels by 100,000.
“God did not create this country to be a nation of followers,’’ Romney said, adding “America must lead the world, or someone else will.’’
The speech was well received by the cadets. Afterward, some conservatives lauded Romney’s message.
Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Romney did a good job providing a forceful, detailed policy that answers critics who say he has been short on details.
“This is the kind of competence and leadership that people like to see,’’ she said. “I commend him and his campaign for being smart and being out front.’’
Romney gave few clues of how he would pay for the proposals, beyond a brief mention in a fact sheet of reinvesting money saved from efficiencies found in the procurement process and in staffing. Such a spending spree in a time of budget austerity could expose Romney, who has focused his campaign on accentuating his business acumen, to criticism over his priorities.
As part of a debt reduction law passed in August, the Pentagon has agreed to cuts of $350 billion in its projected growth over the next decade. Defense officials are digging in just to prevent further cuts.
Romney’s proposals are “totally unrealistic,’’ said Lawrence J. Korb, who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan and is now a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. Depending on what new ships are ordered, the cost of beefing up the Navy could double the approximately $13 billion now spent for naval acquisitions and adding 100,000 troops would probably cost $15 billion a year, Korb said.
“It’s playing to people who don’t recognize the reality of the world - that we have to get our deficit under control in order to get back our ability to influence events in the world,’’ he said. “To say I’m going to build more military things doesn’t help you do that.’’
Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group dedicated to fiscal responsibility, said Romney’s proposals sounded like “a very pricey agenda.’’
“The government is hemorrhaging cash, with deficits over a trillion dollars a year, and certainly you have a war-weary public,’’ he said. “It just doesn’t seem very realistic to be thinking of a big military build up.’’
On the key foreign policy issue of today, the Afghanistan war, Romney offered little insight into his thinking, saying only he would review the planned drawdown of forces there and make a decision about force levels “free from politics.’’
He had been criticized by some conservatives for previously saying the troops should come home as soon as possible.
The speech capped a carefully calculated rollout of Romney’s national security and foreign policy positions, making him the first in the current field of GOP candidates to do so. On Thursday morning, he announced his advisory team, which included experts in defense, diplomacy, and counterterrorism, including many from George W. Bush’s presidency. He then delivered a speech aboard an aircraft carrier in Charleston. Yesterday’s speech followed at The Citadel, the storied military college where Bush also delivered a major campaign speech in 1999 about the decline of the military.
Michael Mandelbaum, professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, said the setting for the speech was important on several fronts.
“The ability to be commander in chief is the more important test for the Republicans than for the Democrats,’’ he said. “The Citidel is a military school, and South Carolina is an important primary, and it has military installations and voters who care about this.’’
The Obama campaign fired back at Romney’s criticisms, saying that the speech “raised real questions about his capacity to lead this country and wage the fight against terrorism.’’ The president has degraded Al Qaeda, eliminated Osama bin Laden, and ended the war in Iraq while strengthening US standing in the world, campaign secretary Ben LaBolt said in a statement.
Foreign policy has so far not been a prominent factor in the GOP race to challenge Obama, despite the fact that the nation is winding down two wars, has committed resources to the effort to topple Libyan ruler Moammar Khadafy, and is closely scrutinizing the Pentagon budget.
Instead, voters’ anxiety over jobs and the stagnant economy has dominated the discussions.
“The calculation that many of the campaigns have been making is that there aren’t many votes to be gained by talking about foreign policy,’’ said Jamie M. Fly, executive director of the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative. Members of the group’s board are advising Romney.
In addition to Romney, former Utah governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr. plans a speech on foreign policy. Huntsman, who has lagged in the polls, is scheduled to make the address in New Hampshire on Monday, the day before the candidates’ next debate.
Political analysts say that articulating a nuanced foreign policy stance has become more difficult with the increased clout of Tea Party activists, who have ratcheted up tensions between Republicans who want a robust military presence and those who argue that the United States can no longer afford it.
Some activists argue that the nation is spread too thin across the globe, maintains foreign bases that are holdovers from long-passed threats, and should reduce its military footprint and foreign aid.
“You’re hearing more isolationist voices in that party, and that to me is a grave danger to our country,’’ said R. Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state and a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The most vocal of such candidates is Texas Republican Ron Paul, a libertarian with an impassioned base of followers. Paul argues that the United States needs to sharply reduce military spending.
Romney yesterday warned against such a position. “This is America’s moment. We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America’s moment has passed,’’ he said. “That is utter nonsense.’’Theo Emery can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @temery.