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Lexington, Va. - In what was billed as a major foreign policy address, Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of a lack of forceful leadership in the Middle East 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 and U.S.-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 Middle East, 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."
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 speech at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington 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 two candidates debate foreign policy during their last one-on-one encounter, on Oct. 22.
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 claims 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 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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 claims ties between the two nations have never been stronger.
Romney said he would bulk up the U.S. 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.
Romney spoke in a small auditorium at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, from a slightly upraised lectern with a U.S. flag and several military flags behind him. A group of several hundred cadets, decked out in white uniforms, filled the seats, mixing with a few dozen invited guests. After his address, Romney was planning to participate in a roundtable with retired generals, but that event will be closed to the press and public.
Romney spoke in confident and crisp tones, perhaps reflecting the intensive preparation aides said he had engaged in for the speech. Gone was the hurried demeanor he had displayed at a rally just the night before in Florida, where he rushed through his remarks as rain threatened from a gray sky.
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 roundly 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 experts 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.
"It's understandable why he's doing it now," said David Rothkopf, a former senior Clinton administration official who is chief executive of Foreign Policy magazine. "The administration, which two to three months ago seemed unassailable on foreign policy and national security issues, now looks much more vulnerable because of what happened in Libya, because the entire Middle East is a mess, because of tensions between Obama and Netanyahu."
The Obama campaign, citing foreign policy achievements including the killing of Osama bin Laden and the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, is undeterred. Campaign officials have accused Romney of flip-flopping on the U.S. mission in Libya and troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, and have pointed out that on some issues, such as the Iranian nuclear program, Romney has outlined positions similar to Obama's. They also say most people don't vote based on foreign policy, though it may be seen more broadly as part of a leadership test.
"We're not going to be lectured by someone who's been an unmitigated disaster on foreign policy every time he's dipped his toe in the foreign policy waters," said campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
The Obama campaign continued its attack Monday morning, 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.
A memo released by Obama's campaign said the president "has one of the strongest national security records of any President in generations - he has decimated al-Qaida'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."
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the speech is a calculated risk for Romney because he is veering from his core message that he can fix the economy into an area "that has been treacherous for him up until now, where he has not been very sure-footed."
But Alterman thinks that if Romney stays on script, he can show leadership and take advantage of what Alterman calls the administration's "absolutely miserable job" explaining the changes rocking the Middle East in the fallout from the Arab Spring pro-democracy movement.
"If it's something that all of his advisers can work out, he can talk boldly, and he may see this as his clearest shot to draw a distinction with the president," Alterman said.
Washington Post polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.