RENO — Preparing for his first foreign travel as the unofficial Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney used a send-off speech before military veterans Tuesday to deliver a scathing indictment of President Obama’s defense and foreign policies.
Tying the tepid economy at home to weakness abroad, Romney asserted that Obama’s “policies have made it harder to recover from the deepest recession in 70 years, exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify [and] compromised our national security secrets.”
“In dealings with other nations, he has given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved, and apology where it is not due,” Romney said.
The convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars is a virtual command performance for presidential hopefuls; Obama addressed the group in Reno on Monday, winning a warm reception when he touted such achievements as the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Another tradition is avoiding harsh partisan rhetoric while on foreign soil, and Romney, who embarks Wednesday on a weeklong swing through England, Israel and Poland, acknowledged as much. But he showed no such restraint Tuesday, scoring Obama repeatedly even as he offered few specifics about what he would do if elected.
“A healthy American economy is what underwrites American power,” said Romney, who was repeatedly interrupted by applause during his nearly 30 minutes of remarks. “When growth is missing, government revenues fall, social spending rises and many in Washington look to cut defense spending as the easy way out. That includes our current president.”
Romney referred to massive defense cuts set for January as part of a deficit-cutting package that automatically kicks in unless Congress acts.
“Don’t bother trying to find a serious military rationale behind any of this, unless that rationale is wishful thinking,” Romney said. “Strategy is not driving the president’s massive defense cuts. In fact, his own secretary of Defense warned that these reductions would be ‘devastating.’ And he’s right.”
Unspoken was the fact that Congress — not Obama — effectively put a gun to its own head on defense spending, adopting the cuts on a bipartisan vote as a way to force a long-term resolution of the nation’s debt. So far, that effort has been unavailing.
Romney also attacked the administration over recent leaks of national security information, laying responsibility at the president’s doorstep and calling it “a national security crisis.” The leaks include news of U.S. cyber-attacks against Iran’snuclear program and details of an investigation into an Al Qaeda bombing plot.
“This conduct is contemptible,” Romney said. “It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation, with explanation and consequence.... The time for stonewalling is over.”
Romney quoted Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said Monday that some leaks had come from the White House, though she absolved Obama of wrongdoing.
Soon after Romney’s speech, Feinstein issued a statement saying she regretted her choice of words and expressed unhappiness with him for quoting her remarks.
Obama and White House aides have denied releasing classified information to reporters, saying the published information came from elsewhere. But the attack on the administration’s transparency was a bit of payback from Romney, who has come under repeated assault from the Obama campaign, which accuses him of secrecy on everything from his personal finances to his foreign policy plans to his running of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, accused Romney of launching “baseless attacks.”
“Mitt Romney has a very high bar he has not yet jumped over to convince the American people that he wants to have a serious conversation about foreign policy,” Psaki said.
Standing alongside her on Air Force One as Obama flew from the Bay Area to a campaign stop in Portland, Ore., White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed Romney’s speech as superficial and stinting on detail.
He told reporters Romney’s address was “the polar opposite” of one Obama made as a candidate before the VFW four years ago, when he made “very specific promises” on areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism.
“The president talks frequently about the challenges we face in Afghanistan, the challenges we face in Iraq, the challenge we face now in Syria and the broader Arab Spring, in Asia — the need to focus and rebalance our efforts toward Asia. I find those specifics lacking so far in what I’ve heard from the other side,” Carney said.
Although Tuesday’s audience was welcoming, Romney’s speech marked a rare foray into foreign policy, which is less hospitable political terrain for him than the struggling economy.
Obama can point to several popular achievements, including the death of Bin Laden, lopping off much of Al Qaeda’s leadership, ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq and winding down combat operations in Afghanistan.
Polls show Obama favored over his Republican rival when it comes to conducting foreign policy and fighting terrorism, which denies Romney the traditional advantage Republicans have enjoyed on defense.
Still, Romney fell back on a familiar party line, suggesting Obama had been too timid in his use of force. “It’s a mistake — and sometimes a tragic one — to think that firmness in American foreign policy can only bring tension or conflict,” Romney said. “The surest path to danger is always weakness and indecision. In the end, it is resolve that moves events in our direction, and strength that keeps the peace.”
He promised closer relations with Israel and a tougher stance against both Russia and China. Accusing China of unfairly manipulating its currency, Romney said, “The cheating must finally be brought to a stop. The president hasn’t done it and won’t do it, and I will.”
He reserved perhaps his toughest language for Iran, which Romney described as “a catastrophic threat” to the U.S. and the world.
Venturing further than he had before on the issue, Romney called for a complete cessation of uranium enrichment by Iran, not just gradations of enrichment. “A clear line has to be drawn,” the former Massachusetts governor said. He did not say what he would do as president if Iran failed to comply.
Staff writers Michael A. Memoli in Portland and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.