Mitt Romney, the Republican US presidental candidate accused President Barack Obama of a Middle East policy that has emboldened America's enemies, alienated its allies and made the risk of conflict in the region greater than it had been four years ago.
Romney says there is 'longing for American leadership' in Middle East
WASHINGTON // Mitt Romney vowed last night to tighten sanctions on Iran, reaffirm ties to Israel and deepen "critical co-operation with our partners in the Gulf".
The Republican presidental candidate accused Barack Obama of a Middle East policy that has emboldened America's enemies, alienated its allies and made the risk of conflict in the region greater than it had been four years ago.
There is a "longing for American leadership" in the region and the world, Mr Romney said in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.
"If America doesn't lead, others will, others who don't 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."
Mr Obama, he said, had failed to secure a "responsible and gradual" withdrawal of troops from Iraq, leaving the country volatile, failed to support demonstrators in Iran in 2009, leaving the Iranian regime strengthened, and was failing in Syria, where the conflict threatened regional stability.
He described the operation that killed Osama bin Laden and similar counter-terrorist efforts as "real achievements won at a high cost", but also had a dig at the administration's extensive use of drone warfare as "no substitute for a national security strategy".
"The president is fond of saying that the tide of war is receding, and I want to believe him," Mr Romney said. "But when we look at the Middle East today, with Iran closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability, with conflict in Syria threatening to destabilise the region, and with violent extremists on the march … it's clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than it was when the president took office."
Mr Romney held up the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11 as an example of the administration's failed policies. The attack, he said, was probably carried out by "affiliates" of those behind the September 11, 2001 attack. It was evidence, he told an audience of cadets at VMI, that America's standing in the region was eroding when popular demonstrations against Libya's militias in the days after the attacks showed the need for a greater American role.
"We can't support or friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds."
Mr Romney said he would put Iran's leaders "on notice" that the US and its allies would "prevent them" from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. He said he would restore a permanent presence of aircraft carriers in both the eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf and would "not hesitate" to implement new sanctions on Iran.
"For the sake of peace we must make clear to Iran, with actions not just words, that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated."
He also said he would reform US foreign aid, which he said should be contingent on recipients living up to the expectations of "decent modern government", respecting minority and gender rights, allowing space for civil society, a free media, political parties and an independent judiciary as well as respect their international obligations, including Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
Mr Romney's address throws down a gauntlet to an Obama campaign still reeling from the president's poor showing at last week's first presidential debate on domestic policy.
According to Gallup's daily tracking poll, the Republican candidate has hauled in the five-point lead Mr Obama enjoyed before the debates, with Mr Romney equalling Mr Obama's 47 per cent support in the three days after the debate.
Mr Romney delivered the speech at the alma mater of the former secretary of state George Marshall, the architect of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War. Aides said the choice was deliberate, and intended to cast Mr Romney as part of a long tradition of American leadership around the world.
The Obama campaign released a TV ad yesterday discrediting Mr Romney's foreign policy credentials. The 30-second ad lambasted Mr Romney's "gaffe-filled" tour of Britain, Israel and Poland this summer, and called him "reckless" and amateurish". His "knee jerk" response to the demonstrations in Egypt and Libya last month in reaction to a movie clip denigrating the Prophet Mohammed showed an "extraordinary lack of presidential character", the ad said.
"Governor Romney still can't say what he'd do differently on Iran other than taking us to war," Michele Flournoy and Colin Kahl, Obama foreign policy advisers, said after last night's speech.
"He continues to criticise the president's timeline in Afghanistan even while saying he'd pursue it as president. His position on Libya has no credibility since he's been both for and against our Libya policy. And he offers no way forward on Syria other than suggesting that the United States should get more deeply involved in the conflict without defining a strategy."
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press