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Romney challenges Obama on foreign policy

LEXINGTON, Va. — President Obama’s most heralded international achievement of his first term was his order to carry out the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But Mitt Romney challenged his rival on that turf Monday, arguing that Obama has not done enough to secure peace in the Middle East and has allowed terrorist networks to build strength while “leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.”

Romney said Americans should take pride “in the blows that our military and intelligence professionals have inflicted on Al Qaeda” in Pakistan and Afghanistan, calling them “real achievements won at a high cost.”

But he sought to focus voters’ attention on the fact that Al Qaeda and its allies remain a strong force in Yemen and Somalia, in Libya and other parts of North Africa, in Iraq and now in Syria.

“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,” he said. He did not specify what method he favored to eradicate terrorist groups.

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Romney’s address at the Virginia Military Institute, like his remarks on foreign policy on the campaign trail, painted broad themes while offering few policy details. And as it has previously, Romney’s sharp criticism of Obama on foreign affairs suggested more distance from the president than appears to exist.

On the subject of Libya, for example, Romney said he would work to build a democratic nation and to pursue those who recently killed four Americans in Benghazi. But he did not say how his approach would differ from Obama’s. Administration officials have been working with the Libyans toward both those objectives.

Romney did break ground in saying that he has in mind a plan to “begin anew” on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. He vowed 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.”

He didn’t say how he would promote such a move. Still, the statement was a shift from remarks that Romney made behind closed doors at a May fundraiser that was secretly taped and leaked to Mother Jones magazine. In that setting, Romney said he was concerned that Palestinians “have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.”

With little foreign policy experience and after an overseas trip this summer in which he offended both the British (over their staging of the Olympics) and the Palestinians (with an offhand comment about the cause of their poverty), the issue has long appeared to be a vulnerability for Romney. The influence of Al Qaeda is a new point of emphasis for him.

White House officials and Obama campaign aides sharply criticized advance excerpts of the speech Sunday, calling it vague and inconsequential. Noting that Romney has already delivered at least half a dozen foreign policy addresses over the last year, Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki called it the candidate’s “seventh attempt … to reboot his foreign policy.”

“This is somebody who leads with chest-pounding rhetoric,” Psaki said. “He’s inexperienced. He’s been clumsy at his handling of foreign policy. And most of all, all of these factors lead to a risk that we’re going to go back to the same policies that led us to some of the challenges we faced in the last few years.”

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served under President Clinton, dismissed Romney’s foreign policy as confusing and “full of platitudes.” She said his cadre of advisors reminded her of the George W. Bush administration’s eight years, “and we’re still dealing with the consequences of that.”

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Romney has recruited many of Bush’s advisors, including Richard S. Williamson, a Bush administration special envoy to Sudan; former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton; Dan Senor, former spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq; and Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and a State Department official under Bush. But Romney has also relied on his own cadre of foreign policy advisors, including former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent.

Romney’s comments Monday were aimed at the Obama administration’s argument that its years of counter-terrorism efforts have decimated Al Qaeda as the primary terrorist threat.

The administration acknowledges that affiliates of Al Qaeda and groups with similar aims continue to flourish in places like Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Mali. But they contend, and many private analysts agree, that U.S. counter-terrorism efforts have greatly diminished the militants’ ability to carry out large and complex attacks like those of 2001.

The Republican nominee seized on the unrest in Libya, Egypt and Syria, as well as the threat of nuclear weapons in Iran, to make the case that the president has been too passive in helping democracy gain a foothold around the world.

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“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,” he said Monday.

He argued that the people of Syria and Iran felt abandoned by the U.S. during their struggles for a more democratic society. “Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our president is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity,” he said.

Romney vowed to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, though the Obama administration has been praised, even by Republicans, for taking a hard line on sanctions. The United States and the European Union are talking about further increasing sanctions; the only question has been how far they will go.

Romney also said he would make aircraft carrier task forces a permanent presence in the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region.

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On Syria, Romney implied that he might be willing to have the Persian Gulf states now supplying small arms to the Syrian opposition also provide more powerful anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. The Obama administration has urged Saudi Arabia and Qatar not to supply such arms, for fear they could fall into the hands of extremists who might use them against the West, with commercial airlines as one possible target.

Romney said he would work with allies to identify which opposition groups are worthy of U.S. trust, “and ensure that they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.”

Romney’s proposals about Egypt were similar to Obama’s, though he implied that in exchange for aid he would press the Egyptians harder to support U.S. goals. In suggesting that aid could be withdrawn if cooperation were insufficient, Romney may be parting company with key Israeli officials, who want the U.S. to continue aid so it retains influence over Egypt.

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Reston reported from Lexington and Richter from Washington.


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