Romney: President Obama has led from behind in the Middle East

Mitt Romney on Monday accused President Obama of a lack of leadership on the global stage in a speech the GOP nominee hopes can help him capitalize on the momentum he's seen in the wake of his strong performance in last week's presidential debate.

In what his campaign billed as a major foreign policy address, Romney claimed that "this president’s policies have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership.

"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. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama," Romney said during his remarks at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.

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Romney also charged that the situation in the Middle East is worse than when Obama took office. Speaking at the alma mater of former Secretary of State George Marshall, Romney said America should seek to emulate the leadership the nation showed in Europe after World War II.

"But when we look at the Middle East today — with Iran closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability, with the conflict in Syria threatening to destabilize the region, with violent extremists on the march and with an American Ambassador and three others dead likely at the hands of al Qaeda affiliates — it is clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the President took office."

His remarks come as the turmoil in the Middle East is fresh in the minds of voters and as polls show him tied with Obama following his win in the first presidential debate. Team Romney also hopes the speech will help the GOP nominee set the stage for his next two debates with Obama and give a leg up to his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, whose lack of foreign policy experience could be a handicap when he faces off on Thursday against Vice President Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Obama's campaign aggressively hit back on Romney's speech, challenging the GOP nominee to "bring it on."

"Mitt Romney once again tried to engage the president on foreign policy, and we have a simple message for him: bring it on," said Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt.

"President Obama has shown time and again that he is a tough, responsible, and steady commander-in-chief," LaBolt noted. "Mitt Romney has shown throughout this campaign that he would be the exact opposite. Behind the tough talk, he has been erratic, unsteady, and irresponsible in his audition on the world stage."

Romney has given a number of "major" foreign policy addresses throughout the campaign, but aides on a conference call Sunday said this speech would be different because the GOP nominee would offer a detailed explanation of how he would have handled recent world events differently from Obama.

And he did address several specific foreign policy topics in his remarks, including the recent violence in Libya that claimed the lives of four American foreign service officers, the U.S. relationship with Israel, the situation in Syria and concerns about Iran's nuclear capabilities.

The recent attacks in Benghazi, Libya, made up a major portion of his remarks. Romney said they were not random acts, but symptomatic of a "struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East."

Arguing "the fault lines of this struggle can be seen clearly in Benghazi," Romney blasted Obama for both his immediate response to the terrorist attack at the consulate there on Sept. 11, and the president's larger outlook toward the world.

The Republican nominee argued repeatedly that the president was out of step with the American foreign policy of the past century, and reiterated his argument that the Obama administration's foreign policy had been defined by "weakness."

"We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut, when we have no trade agenda to speak of, and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership but of passivity," Romney said.

The hope by Republicans is that Romney can now put the president on the defensive on foreign policy, using the Benghazi attacks as an entry into a wider critique of one area that the president has polled persistently well. If Romney is able to successfully erode the president's advantage — and put him on the defensive in the final two presidential debates, both of which will feature a substantial discussion on foreign policy — Republicans believe that Romney could replicate his gains from last week.

But Romney will have to sell his vision to an American people who have seen him stumble on the global stage — most famously during his foreign trip earlier this year — and rebut charges from the Obama campaign that he's offering a rhetorical, not substantive, difference.

The Republican candidate did look to create some concrete distance from the Obama administration. In Egypt, Romney said he would place "clear conditions on our aid" to urge the nation to build democratic institutions. And he argued that Obama had erred in pulling out all American troops from Iraq.

Romney also said that a different economic attitude could help in the broader fight against terrorism and unrest in the Middle East.

"I will champion free trade and restore it as a critical element of our strategy, both in the Middle East and across the world," Romney said. "The president has not signed one new free-trade agreement in the past four years. I will reverse that failure." Obama has in fact signed free trade deals with South Korea, Columbia and Panama, but they were negotiated under George W. Bush.

But on other issues, Romney seemed to offer critiques of the president without explicitly saying what he would do differently.

"Drones and the modern instruments of war are important tools in our fight, but they are no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East," Romney said — highlighting a drone program that had raised eyebrows without proposing a clear alternative.

Similarly, Romney pledged to "put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability." But it's not clear that his pledge to restore aircraft carrier task forces to the Persian Gulf and saying he would be open to additional sanctions will be enough for Romney to create daylight between himself and the president on the issue.

On Israel, Romney pledged to "recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel."

Palestinian leaders have vowed to seek statehood recognition at the UN next month after the U.S. election because negotiations over a two-state solution have stalled since 2009 over the issue of borders and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. It's not clear however how Romney's vow never to have any “daylight” with Israel will restore America as an effective arbiter between the two parties, especially after he was caught on videotape telling a fundraiser that it was “going to remain an unsolved problem” and that he would simply “kick the ball down the field.”

In Afghanistan, Romney said he would "pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014" — similar to the president — but tried to draw contrast by saying simply he was not wedded to the date if conditions on the ground changed, rather than his personal "political prospects." NATO members are meeting this week to sketch out the future role for military trainers and special forces after the end of the combat mission in 2014, and Romney hasn't offered a different timetable.

And in civil-war wracked Syria, Romney said he wants to “work with our partners to identify and to organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets” – but stopped short of saying America should provide weapons directly. Obama administration officials have said they're cooperating with Arab allies to identify rebel groups worthy of receiving arms.

The speech also dovetails conveniently with a House hearing on the security failure in Benghazi, scheduled for Wednesday. The head of a Special Forces team that was withdrawn from Libya a month before the attack will testify at the hearing that Ambassador Christopher Stevens wanted them to stay on past the end of their deployment, and a May 2012 State Department email rejecting the embassy's request for a DC-3 airplane for the 16-member team to travel across the country was made public last week.

Romney's new-found aggression on the issue was on full display this past week after the Obama administration finally called the Sept. 11 slaying of Stevens and three other Americans a “deliberate and organized terrorist attack.” He penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday calling for a “new strategy toward the Middle East” and attacked the administration's handling of the situation in Libya on Thursday, the day after the debate.

Monday marked Romney's sixth foreign policy speech over the past year, according to some accounts. These include addresses at The Citadel in South Carolina last year, at the Veterans of Foreign War annual convention in Reno, in Israel and in Poland in July, and to the American Legion on the eve of his address to the Republican convention.

— This story was last updated at 1:41 p.m.