LEXINGTON, Va. — In a wide-ranging foreign policy address, Mitt Romney accused President Obama of a lack of forceful leadership in the Mideast on Monday, saying that a waning of American resolve in the region has made it a more dangerous place.
‘‘It is time to change course in the Middle East,’’ Romney said, adding that he knows ‘‘the president hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy. We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds.’’
With the president now potentially vulnerable on issues such as Libya, Syria, and US-Israeli relations, the Romney campaign senses an opportunity to reshape an issue long seen as an Obama strength. Referring to recent attacks on America’s diplomatic posts in the Mideast, Romney said it is Obama’s ‘‘responsibility 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 his speech at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Romney also said Obama failed reformist protesters in Iran in 2009, and is failing the anti-Assad forces in Syria now. The United States is ‘‘sitting on the sidelines,’’ instead of working with other nations to arm the Syrian rebels.
The Obama campaign fired back, releasing a new television ad that blasted Romney’s foreign policy credentials and said his ‘‘gaffe-filled’’ European tour in July showed his ‘‘reckless’’ and ‘‘amateurish’’ approach to international issues. The campaign also said the president ‘‘has one of the strongest national security records of any president in generations — he has decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership, taken out Osama bin Laden, ended the war in Iraq, provided unparalleled support to Israel, produced unprecedented pressure on Iran, strengthened our alliances, and restored our standing in the world.’’
Romney’s speech thrust foreign policy even more into the center of a campaign that until recently had been almost entirely about the economy. The focus is expected to intensify as the candidates debate foreign policy during their last one-on-one encounter, on Oct. 22.
Romney called for a sharply different course on Syrian policy, saying the United States should help other countries seeking to arm rebel fighters. He also said it is in America’s interest to help an opposition that will probably lead a country in the heart of the Mideast.
Romney aides said he was not calling for the United States to directly arm the rebels, which led Obama’s campaign to accuse the Republican of failing to say how his policies would differ from the incumbent's. The US policy is aimed at maintaining some measure of control over which groups receive weapons, because of fears that shoulder-launched rockets and other heavy weaponry could fall into the wrong hands.
Much of Romney’s address focused on the complex threat posed by Iran, but he did not propose specific solutions that differ from the Obama administration’s current policy of tightening sanctions and insisting that an Iranian nuclear bomb is intolerable. Romney did not say whether he would continue the current international diplomatic effort to persuade Iran to back off from the most worrisome elements of its nuclear program. Iran says the program is aimed only at peaceful nuclear energy and medical uses.
Romney said he would support Israel, the nation presumably most at risk if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, and charged that Obama’s poor relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has helped embolden Iran and other adversaries.
‘‘I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security,’’ Romney said. ‘‘The world must never see any daylight between our two nations.’’
That was a reference to a remark Obama reportedly made to ‘‘put some daylight’’ between the United States and Israel early in his administration. Obama has since pledged many times to support Israel and his administration says ties between the two nations have never been stronger.
Romney said he would bulk up the US naval presence around Iran, something the Obama administration has done occasionally on an ad hoc basis. He said he would add to the Navy’s fleet, but did not say how he would pay for it.
Romney also promised new conditions on foreign aid, including to Egypt. ‘‘I will make it clear to the recipients of our aid that in return for our material support, they must meet the responsibilities of every decent modern government,’’ Romney said.
In his comfort zone when focused on the economy, Romney has stumbled during his occasional forays into foreign policy. He offended his British hosts and Palestinian leaders during an overseas trip in July, failed to mention Afghanistan in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, and was criticized for the timing of his attack on Obama’s handling of violence in Libya, in which four Americans were killed.
With increasing questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the Libyan violence — and with Romney gaining momentum from his widely praised performance in last week’s first debate — some analysts think the speech is well-timed.
Though Obama has consistently outpolled Romney on foreign affairs, that advantage has diminished. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted just before the first debate showed Obama with a five-point edge in who is more trusted to handle international concerns, down from the president’s double-digit advantage earlier in the year.
The Obama campaign, citing foreign policy achievements including the killing of bin Laden and the US military withdrawal from Iraq, is undeterred.
Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state under President Clinton, said in a conference call with reporters that Romney’s speech was superficial. ‘‘To someone not totally into foreign policy, it sounds pretty good, but it’s really full of platitudes,’’ she said.