Mitt Romney called for Syrian rebels to be supplied with heavy weaponry on Monday, as he condemned Barack Obama for failing to lead an international response to President Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of civilians.
The Republican presidential challenger told voters the US must spend more, not less, on defence and effectively fight a proxy war against Iran by ensuring Syrian anti-government forces “obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets”.
“Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them,” Mr Romney said in a speech in Virginia. “We should be working no less vigorously through our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran – rather than sitting on the sidelines.”
The former Massachusetts governor did not, however, specify which rebel factions should be armed, nor if the US should arm them directly or facilitate supply by allies. Diverging from prepared remarks, he said the US should work “through” its global partners, rather than “with”.
Mr Romney quoted a Syrian woman’s comments to a National Public Radio interview to sum up the likely response to Washington’s failure to act on the killing of 30,000 civilians. “We will not forget that you forgot about us,” she said.
Senator John McCain, a longtime advocate of US intervention in Syria and Mr Obama’s opponent in 2008, hailed Mr Romney’s speech to cadets at the Virginia Military Institute as “a blueprint for restoring America’s strength in the world”.
Mr Romney consistently trails Mr Obama in polls on foreign policy, reversing a typical Republican advantage. However his national post-debate “bounce” continued on Monday as he drew level with the president in two daily tracking polls and took a four-point lead in one national survey of likely voters by Pew, which was conducted entirely after the debate.
The Pew poll marked a dramatic shift since mid-September, when Mr Obama led by eight points. Mr Romney also drew level with Mr Obama on the question of which was a stronger leader, having trailed by 13 points last month.
He mounted a wide-ranging assault on Mr Obama’s foreign policy, telling him “hope is not a strategy” and saying: “It is the responsibility of our President to use America’s great power to shape history, not to lead from behind,” referring to a now-infamous remark by an Obama aide.
Having been chided for too quickly politicising the crisis last month, Mr Romney revived his criticism of Mr Obama’s response to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed Chris Stevens, its ambassador to Libya. He accused the White House of misleading the public.
“This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration’s attempts to convince us of that for so long,” he said. “No, as the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists.”
Mr Romney said the Sept 11 attack “was likely the work of forces affiliated with those that attacked our homeland on September 11th, 2001” – softening a planned remark that they were “the same forces”, amid a lack of clarity on the potential involvement of al-Qaeda.
Despite the President’s endorsement of the Arab Spring uprisings, Mr Romney alleged that he had emboldened enemies by placing “great strains” on America’s key alliance with Israel and failing to give “the tangible support that our partners want and need” across the middle east.
He reiterated his promise that, like Mr Obama, he would prevent Iran, which he said had “never been closer to a nuclear weapons capability”, from acquiring it. “I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have,” he said.
Despite a $1.2 trillion budget deficit, he attacked Mr Obama’s plans for cuts to military budgets and proposed returning to Cold War-level spending. Analysts say Mr Romney’s plan would raise annual spending from $525 billion next year to $986 billion by 2022.
Shrugging off criticism for labelling Russia as America’s “number-one geopolitical foe” earlier this year, the Republican said he would show “no flexibility with Vladimir Putin” on US missile defence plans in eastern Europe, contrary to an offer by Mr Obama caught on a live microphone.
And having been sharply criticised for failing to mention the conflict in his party convention speech, Mr Romney went further than ever before in suggesting that significant numbers of US forces may need to remain in Afghanistan past Mr Obama’s 2014 withdrawal date.
“President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war,” he said. But the route to more war – and to potential attacks here at home – is a politically timed retreat”.
His remarks on the Afghan conflict typified a delicate balance his foreign policy team tried to strike throughout the speech. While seeking to project US strength, they are wary of appearing too similar to the administration of George W. Bush, who remains highly unpopular
Richard Williamson, an adviser to Mr Romney and former envoy to Sudan for Mr Bush, stressed yesterday that the Republican candidate had a “bipartisan vision” for foreign policy.
Asked in a discussion with reporters how Mr Romney’s plans sat with those of former presidents Reagan, Bush senior, Clinton and Bush junior, Mr Williamson said: “Clearly Mitt Romney is much more in the Clinton/Reagan tradition”.
However Madeleine Albright, a Secretary of State to Mr Clinton, said Mr Romney was “shallow” and had surrounded himself with “a division of neoconservatives” responsible for the Bush administration’s reckless foreign adventurism.
By Jon Swaine, and Raf Sanchez – THE TELEGRAPH