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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Caucus Click: From the Military Institute to the Schoolyard


5:39 p.m. | Updated LEXINGTON, Va. - After weeks of refraining from dipping back into the sensitive topic of the attack that killed the American ambassador in Libya, Mitt Romney on Monday offered harsh criticism of the administration for being slow to label the assault terrorism and faulted its overall handling of the attack.

The assault on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi “cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration's attempts to convince us of that for so long,'' Mr. Romney said. “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.''

In a wide-ranging foreign policy address meant to polish Mr. Romney's image as a potential commander in chief, he belittled President Obama as “leading from behind” in conflict spots across the Middle East, from Syria to Iran to Egypt to Israel.

Acknowledging that Mr. Obama deserves credit for killing Osama bin Laden, he nonetheless criticized the president as lacking a comprehensive counterterrorism policy and failing to capitalize on the Arab Spring uprisings.

“Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our president is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity,'' he said, speaking at the Virginia Military Institute. “As one Syrian woman put it, ‘We will not forget that you forgot about us.'”

On Iran, Mr. Romney said that the president's sanctions had failed to slow its march to a nuclear weapon. He would “put the leaders of Iran on notice” that the United States, along with “friends and allies,” would halt that progress, beginning with a show of military force.

“I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf,'' Mr. Romney said, speaking in the Hall of Valor of the Virginia Military Institute. “For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions - not just words - that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated.''

He went further, linking Iran's continued progress toward a nuclear weapon to Mr. Obama's putting “daylight” between the Unites States and Israel, which Mr. Romney said “emboldened” Iran.

“The world must never see any daylight between our two nations,'' he said. Some Middle East experts have described that formulation as having the potential to lead the United States into war, given the bellicose signals of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, toward Iran.

The Obama campaign pushed back aggressively on Mr. Romney's address, beginning early in the day, when excerpts from the speech were released. It held up past inconsistencies and stumbles by Mr. Romney, including calling Russia the country's “No. 1 geopolitical foe'' and opposing support for the Libyan insurgency before its ultimate success.

Two national security advisers to the Obama campaign, Michèle Flournoy and Colin Kahl, critiqued Mr. Romney's “unseemly response” in attacking the administration for rushing “to sympathize with those who waged the attacks'' on American outposts on Sept. 11, before the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was confirmed.

Mr. Romney's “instinct was to play politics with the tragedy and attempt to score political points in any way he could,'' the advisers wrote.

Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, said in a conference call after Mr. Romney's speech, “To someone not totally into foreign policy, it sounds pretty good, but it's really full of platitudes.''

“For someone who has spent her own life in foreign policy, there's an awful lot of rhetoric,” she said, adding, “You don't get th e sense he knows what tools to use and how to operate in an international setting and what the role of the United States is in the 21st century.''

Roving broadly in his speech over Iraq, Afghanistan and counterterrorism, Mr. Romney conspicuously left one name unmentioned: George W. Bush, the architect of much of the unilateralist policy in the region, a version of which Mr. Romney embraced.

“It is the responsibility of our president to use America's great power to shape history - not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events,'' Mr. Romney said. “Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama.''