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Romney plans sharp critique of Obama’s foreign policy

LEXINGTON, Va. – Mitt Romney will use an address Monday at the Virginia Military Institute to argue that President Obama’s approach to foreign policy has reduced U.S. influence around the world, and that Al Qaeda has grown stronger during his presidency, despite the death of Osama bin Laden.

For more than a year, Romney has centered his campaign on the economic troubles facing voters — largely steering clear of foreign policy, which has never been one of his strengths. But after last month’s attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and anti-U.S. protests in Egypt, his team saw an opening to challenge Obama on that stage.

Romney’s advisors have argued that Americans are beginning to see the shortcomings of Obama’s policies in the unrest in the Middle East — including civilian deaths in Syria, attacks on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and the violence in Libya, which the administration has acknowledged was an act of terrorism.

Romney faced his own political troubles after putting out a statement in the middle of the night while the attack on the U.S. consulate was still unfolding. Before the full details were known, Romney’s statement alleged that instead of condemning the attacks, the administration had taken an apologetic tone about an anti-Muslim video made in the U.S. (Romney’s critique was based on a statement from the Egyptian Embassy about events there, which the administration later distanced itself from.)

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A little more than a week ago, Romney seemed to take a more measured tone on Libya, sidestepping a question posed by a reporter about whether President Obama could have done more to prevent the attack on the U.S. Consulate, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. (Romney said he would withhold judgement until he knew the results of a congressional investigation into the incident.)

But on Monday, he will argue that “the attacks on America last month should not be seen as random acts,” according to excerpts of the speech released by the campaign. “They are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East — a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century. And the fault lines of this struggle can be seen clearly in Benghazi itself.”

Romney planned to say he would support the Libyan people’s efforts “to forge a lasting government that represents all of them” — though it was not at all clear from the excerpts what the policy underpinnings of that approach would be — and said he would “vigorously pursue the terrorists” who carried out the attack in Benghazi. Obama made a similar pledge at a campaign event last month in Golden, Colo., telling the audience that he wanted to telegraph to the world that “no act of terror will go unpunished.”

Though Obama ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives, Romney’s campaign appears to be launching an aggressive effort to convince Americans that the Democrat’s policies have not succeeded in rolling back the influence of Al Qaeda around the world.

On Monday, Romney will note that the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was “likely the work of the same forces” that carried out the attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001. He also will suggest that the administration initially tried to downplay the incident by stating that the attacks were sparked by fury over what he called “a reprehensible video insulting Islam.” (Several Republican senators have accused Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, of misleading the American people by initially stating that the attack in Libya appeared to be “a spontaneous reaction” to demonstrations in Cairo over the anti-Muslim film. In a letter to senators Friday, Rice maintained that she based that initial assessment on the intelligence she had been given at the time.)

“The administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West,” Romney planned to say Monday.

“I know the president hopes for a safer, freer and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy,” said Romney’s planned remarks. “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 has delivered a series of major foreign policy addresses throughout the campaign, but his focus has most often been a critique of Obama’s approach over the past few years — including what Romney calls a “politically-timed” withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan that he said ignored the advice of U.S. generals.

His campaign has often struggled to explain what Romney would do differently than his Democratic rival in international hotspots such as Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Iran, particularly given domestic opposition to broad military involvement overseas.

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During a conference call Sunday, Romney’s foreign policy advisors did not answer a reporter’s question about whether Romney would be willing to commit U.S. troops to a small international force in Libya that could help train Libyan soldiers and protect U.S. officials.

When it comes to Syria, Romney has argued that Obama should have done more to prevent civilian deaths but has said little about what he would have done differently.

Instead, in a series of foreign policy speeches over the past year, he has spoken about lofty themes such as “peace through strength,” and his commitment to “an American century.”

In his first major policy address at the Citadel in South Carolina in fall 2011, he said he would try to ensure that the U.S. has the strongest economy and military in the world — defining “an American century” as one in which “America leads the free world, and the free world leads the entire world.”

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“God did not create this country to be a nation of followers,” he said in that speech.

In a prebuttal to Romney’s Monday speech, Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki mocked Romney’s inexperience in the foreign policy arena and his bumpy foreign tour over the summer.

“We’re not going to be lectured by someone who’s been an unmitigated disaster on foreign policy every time he’s dipped his toe in the foreign policy waters,” Psaki told reporters traveling with the president Sunday.

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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@maevereston


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