In what was billed as a major foreign policy address, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Oct. 8 assailed Barack Obama for "passivity" in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, arguing that it was "time to change course" in the Middle East, in particular.
Dispensing with some of the neoconservative rhetoric he has used in the past, he nonetheless argued that the "risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when [Obama] took office" and that Washington should tie itself ever more closely to Israel.
"I will re-affirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security-the world must never see any daylight between our two nations," he told cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, adding that Washington must "also make clear to Iran through actions-not just words-that their [sic] nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated."
As he has in the past, he also called for building up the U.S. Navy, pressing Washington's NATO allies to increase their military budgets in the face of a Vladimir Putin-led Russia, and ensuring that Syrian rebels "who share our values ...obtain the arms they need to defeat [President Bashar al-] Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets."
Independent analysts described the speech as an effort to move to the center on foreign-policy issues, much as he did on economic issues during his debate with Obama the previous week. As a result, they said, his specific policy prescriptions did not differ much, if at all, from those pursued by the current administration.
"In a speech where he attempted to be more centrist, he ended up articulating positions that sound like those of Obama," noted Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who teaches at Georgetown University.
Indeed, in both tone and policy, the speech marked a compromise between his neoconservative and aggressive nationalist advisers on the one hand, and his more realist aides on the other.
Absent from the speech altogether, for example, was any reference to making the 21st century "an American Century," a neoconservative mantra since the mid-1990s that Romney used repeatedly in his one major foreign-policy address during the Republican primary campaign almost exactly one year earlier.
The latest speech comes at a critical moment in the presidential campaign. While Romney was lagging badly in the polls in late September, his strong performance in the first presidential debate against a surprisingly listless Obama has revived his prospects.
While Obama had been leading by about four percentage points nationwide before the debate, the margin fell to only two percentage points, while on-line bettors at the intrade Web site lowered the chances of an Obama victory from nearly 80 percent to 64 percent.
Obama's seeming passivity during the debate may have played a role in the Romney campaign's decision to deliver a foreign-policy address, if for no other reason than that it highlighted the argument that many Republican foreign-policy critics, especially the neoconservatives, have been building over the past year: that the president's policies in the Middle East, in particular, have been too passive, and that "leading from behind"-a phrase used by an anonymous White House official quoted in The New Yorker magazine 18 months ago to describe Obama's low-profile but critical support for the rebellion against Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafiwas unacceptable amid what Romney described in his speech as the world's "longing for American leadership."
Indeed, in the wake of September's siege of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other embassy staffers in Benghazi, Romney's vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, and other surrogates have tried to link recent displays of anti-U.S. sentiment and Islamic militancy in the region to disasters, notably the seizure of the U. …