LEXINGTON, Va. -- Republican Mitt Romney said Monday the risk of conflict in the Middle East "is higher now" than it was when President Barack Obama took office. He proposed that the U.S. take a more assertive role in Syria and claimed Obama's withdrawal of troops from Iraq has jeopardized U.S. interests.
Declaring that "it's time to change course in the Middle East" and accusing Obama of "passivity," the Republican presidential nominee called for the U.S. to work with other countries to arm the Syrian rebels to help them defeat President Bashar Assad's "tanks, helicopters and fighter jets." Romney aides said he is not calling for the U.S. to directly arm the rebels, but said he would support helping other countries provide the opposition with enough weaponry to force Assad from power.
Romney said American gains in Iraq -- won during the war started by President George W. Bush -- have eroded. "America's ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence," he said.
In a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney looked to paint the Democratic incumbent as a weak leader who has limited America's influence on global affairs.
Obama's campaign dismissed the Republican challenger's address as a rehashed attempt to rewrite what they said is his record of past blunders and said he hardly differentiated himself from the president.
While Romney took a hawkish tone during the GOP primaries this year, Monday's address highlighted the work of "patriots of both parties" and looked to cast the Republican nominee as a statesman and part of a long and bipartisan tradition of American leadership in the world. He said the U.S. should use its power "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 recently erupted in several countries. Last month, attackers linked to al-Qaida killed four Americans in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
In the speech, Romney emphasized Iran's ties to the Syrian government and insisted 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."
Romney also called for tougher sanctions on Iran than those that exist, though he did not say how he would strengthen them. He said he would condition aid to Egypt on continued support for its peace treaty with neighboring Israel. Current law already includes such a condition.
Romney criticized Obama for a "politically timed retreat" from Afghanistan, but said he would maintain the same 2014 deadline the president has set for the pullout of U.S. troops and the transition to Afghan security forces.
The Republican nominee also emphasized his commitment to a two-state solution for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, a process he dismissed during a secretly videotaped fundraiser in May. He also criticized the administration for its handling of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
"As the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others," Romney said.
The Republican has given several foreign policy speeches during the campaign, including one in Reno, Nev., before a weeklong summer trip abroad during which Romney offended his British hosts by questioning their security preparations for the Olympic Games. At another stop, in Israel, he raised hackles among Palestinians who charged him with racism after he said culture was part of the reason Israelis were more economically successful than their Palestinian neighbors.
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 at the consulate 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 address as a rehashed attempt to fix past blunders, and said it does little to actually differentiate Romney's positions from the president's record.
"Gov. Romney still can't say what he'd do differently on Iran other than taking us to war. He continues to criticize the president's timeline in Afghanistan even while saying he'd pursue it as president. His position on Libya has no credibility since he's been both for and against our Libya policy. And he offers no way forward on Syria other than suggesting that the United States should get more deeply involved in the conflict without defining a strategy," Obama foreign policy advisers Michele Flournoy and Colin Kahl wrote in a memo sent to reporters.
The campaign prepared a TV ad calling Romney "reckless" and "amateurish" on foreign policy questions, though it said the spot was running only in Virginia.
Obama has held an edge in polls on handling foreign policy issues, and polls show voters aren't particularly focused on the subject amid a struggling economy. Still, Republican aides say the Benghazi attack -- and ensuing questions about possible intelligence failures and lax security at the consulate in Libya -- has given Romney a new opportunity to criticize the president.
After a strong debate performance and with less than a month to go before Election Day, Romney delivered the speech at the alma mater of former Secretary of State George Marshall, the architect of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. Aides said the choice was deliberate, and intended to cast Romney as part of a long tradition of American leadership around the world.
Romney's outline of an approach to Syria comes at a critical time in part because the violence there has spilled over the border and into Turkey. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Saturday the conflict between those neighboring countries could embroil the broader region.
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. 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.
Hunt reported from Washington. AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller in Los Angeles and Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.