Looking confident and presidential, Mitt Romney delivered what his campaign billed as “a major foreign policy speech” on Monday morning at Virginia Military Institute.
But the Republican challenger’s stinging attack on President Barack Obama carried much more rhetoric than substance, triggering a round of counterpunches from the administration and its surrogates.
Romney covered little new ground in his address; the only major initiative he advanced was a firm promise to arm the Syrian rebels, who have been waging a bloody and destructive battle against President Bashar al-Assad since March 2011.
Almost 30,000 people have died in a brutal crackdown on the Syrian opposition, but so far the Obama administration has resisted calls for imposing a no-fly zone or for arming the rebels.
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On most other matters, Romney contented himself with harsh criticism of the president’s policies without offering anything new or specific in their place.
“Unfortunately, this president’s policies have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership,” said Romney. “And nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East.”
Romney focused much of his attention on the Sept. 11 attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
There has been some confusion and disarray in the administration and in the State Department over the issue of responsibility for the attack; initially the deaths were thought to be the tragic result of spontaneous demonstrations sparked by an offensive anti-Muslim video that had appeared on YouTube.
It has since emerged that the attack was a planned and coordinated offensive, likely with some ties to Al Qaeda.
Romney struck at the administration’s delay in acknowledging the link to terrorism: “No, as the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of 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.”
The Romney campaign has been hitting Obama hard on the Benghazi attacks and on the administration’s Middle East policy in general. On Sept. 30, Romney penned an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that covered much of the same ground he did in today’s speech.
The president, said Romney, has been content to “lead from behind” and has deliberately sought to “place daylight” between Washington and Israel.
According to Romney, Obama has been weak on Iran, has not taken strong enough measures to shape events in Egypt, and has let American power and prestige decline throughout the world — a world that, in Romney’s opinion, is pining for the United States to become more assertive.
“There is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East — and it is not unique to that region. It is broadly felt by America’s friends and allies in other parts of the world as well,” said Romney.
But the world according to Romney is not necessarily the world as it is, says foreign policy specialist David Shorr, who is working with the Obama campaign on foreign policy. In an interview in Iowa last week, Shorr was scathing in his critique of Romney’s attempts to dip into the foreign policy sphere.
“It is what I like to call ‘magical thinking,’” said Shorr. “Romney has not had to deal with reality. His proposals carry no trace of difficult trade-offs, unintended consequences, or defiance in the face of American resolve."
The Republican challenger was more intent on scoring political points than in making policy, added Shorr.
“If you look at what he has been saying, Romney is all over the place,” said Shorr. “What is the better test for a Commander in Chief? Second-guessing the diplomatic record, or actually taking action?”
Obama, said Shorr, had intervened in Libya, helping to topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi and stop the slaughter of civilians. Syria, he added, was a different case.
“One of the tests [for intervention] is the prospect for success,” said Shorr. “Short of full-blown intervention, Obama is doing what he can in Syria.”
The other issues that Romney brought up are pretty much non-starters, according to Shorr.
“Romney has been boxed in because the president has been doing so much,” said Shorr. “What can Romney say about Iran? This president has imposed the toughest sanctions on Tehran ever. What else is there? Romney has no good answers.”
Romney also addressed the Israel-Palestine issue in his speech on Monday, promising real progress.
“I 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,” said Romney. “On this vital issue, the president has failed.”
But Romney himself, in the now infamous video secretly filmed at a fundraiser in May, said that peace was all but impossible in the Middle East, since the Palestinians have "no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish."
The Obama campaign lost no time in striking back: by Monday it was airing a new ad calling Romney’s foreign policy record “reckless,” “amateurish,” and indicative of an “extraordinary lack of presidential character.”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took Romney apart in a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon. She called his understanding of foreign policy “shallow.”
“There's an awful lot of rhetoric, but when you get to specifics you get the sense he doesn't know what tools to use ... and what is the role of the United States in the 21st Century,” said Albright. She also took on Romney’s claim that Obama had “not signed one new free trade agreement in the past four years.”
“President Obama has negotiated and signed three trade agreements,” she said. “This is typical of the Romney campaign that just asserts something that is simply not true.”
The race is close, and tightened further after a disappointing performance by the president in the first debate between the two men on Oct. 3. The most recent polls have Obama and Romney virtually tied.
The third and final debate, on Oct. 22, will focus on foreign policy. Judging by today’s speech and the reaction to it, the debate should be a scorcher.