WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is proposing the U.S. take a more assertive role in Syria, put conditions on aid to Egypt and tighten sanctions on Iran as he looks to use a planned foreign policy address to paint President Barack Obama as a weak leader who has limited America's influence on global affairs.
Declaring that "it's time to change course in the Middle East" and accusing Obama of "passivity," Romney on Monday plans to call for the U.S. to work with other countries to arm rebels in Syria with weapons that can defeat the "tanks, helicopters and fighter jets" that make up President Bashar Assad's army.
Romney also plans to call for tougher sanctions on Iran than those already in place, and plans to say he will condition aid to Egypt on continued support for its peace treaty with neighboring Israel. He will emphasize his commitment to a two-state solution for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a process he dismissed during a secretly videotaped fundraiser in May.
Romney plans to make the comments at a major foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute. His campaign released excerpts of his prepared speech in advance. Aides previewing the speech in a conference call with reporters emphasized that the Republican, who took a hawkish tone throughout the GOP primary, would outline a "mainstream" foreign policy vision.
"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," Romney plans to say in the address, adding that the U.S. should use its influence "wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively."
Romney's attempt to outline his approach as commander in chief comes amid turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. Iran is believed to be pursuing a nuclear weapon, Syria is locked in a civil war, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are moribund, and anti-American protests have erupted in several countries. Attackers linked to al-Qaida killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last month, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The Republican has given several foreign policy speeches throughout the campaign, including one in Reno, Nev., ahead of a weeklong trip abroad in the summer. That trip was fraught, with Romney offending his British hosts by questioning their security preparations for the Olympic Games and raising hackles among Palestinians who charged him with racism after he said culture was part of the reason Israelis were more economically successful than the neighboring Palestinians.
In the fall, Romney faced criticism for his hurried and harsh reaction to news of protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the near-simultaneous attacks in Libya. Before the administration knew of Stevens' death, Romney criticized Obama for sympathizing with the attackers. In the aftermath, top Republicans — including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the 2008 presidential nominee — urged Romney to give a speech laying out his vision for U.S. foreign policy.
The Obama campaign dismissed Romney's planned Monday address as a rehashed attempt to fix past blunders.
"We are not going to be lectured by someone who's been an unmitigated disaster on foreign policy every time he sticks his toe in the foreign policy waters," campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One on Sunday. The campaign prepared a TV ad calling Romney "reckless" and "amateurish" on foreign policy questions. Obama's aides also insisted Romney's speech included few specifics that were markedly different from the president's own record.
While Obama has held an edge in polls on handling foreign policy issues, Republican aides say the Benghazi attack — and ensuing questions about possible intelligence failures and lax security at the Libya consulate — has given Romney a new opportunity to criticize the president.
Now, following a strong debate performance, Romney will give the speech at the alma mater of former Secretary of State George Marshall, the architect of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe in the wake of World War II. In the conference call previewing the speech, aides pointed to that connection to illustrate Romney's vision of leadership and engagement on the world stage. The advisers cast Romney as part of a long tradition of statesmen beginning with former President Harry Truman; adviser Rich Williamson said Romney would offer a "bipartisan" approach while aide Eliot Cohen referred to Romney as "very much in the mainstream of foreign policy."
Romney's outline of an approach to Syria comes at a critical time in part because the violence there has spilled over their border with Turkey. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Saturday the conflict between those neighboring countries could embroil the broader region.
Romney aides said the candidate would not call for direct U.S. aid to arm the Syrian rebels, but said he would support providing them with enough force to force Assad from power. In the speech, Romney plans to emphasize Iran's ties to the Syrian government and insist the U.S., through allies, should "support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran rather than sitting on the sidelines." That would allow the U.S. to "develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East."
Obama's administration still seeks a peaceful political transition, even though the president acknowledged in August that the likelihood of a soft landing for Syria's civil war "seems pretty distant."
Obama called on Assad to step down more than a year ago and has sought consensus at the United Nations on a diplomatic power-transfer plan, but has been stymied repeatedly by Russia and China. Obama has stepped up U.S. humanitarian aid and nonlethal assistance, now at a combined $175 million, to the political opposition.
But he has opposed directly providing weapons to the rebels or using U.S. air power to prevent Syrian jets from flying.
The administration says U.S. arms assistance would further militarize Syria and make it even harder to stabilize the country after Assad's downfall, which it insists is inevitable. And it says it still doesn't know the different fighting groups well enough to provide them guns, considering the small but growing influence of Islamist extremists among their ranks.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Lexington, Va., White House Correspondent Ben Feller and writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.