WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Monday ratcheted up his campaign to cast President Barack Obama as a weak steward of U.S. power, but offered few specific clues about how he would handle world crises differently.
Romney, hearkening back to the “peace through strength” doctrine of President Ronald Reagan, a Republican icon, gave his most extensive remarks of the campaign on foreign policy -although he focused almost entirely on the Muslim world.
Romney barely mentioned Russia, which he described just months ago as the top U.S. geopolitical foe, or China, which he has threatened to label a currency manipulator if elected to office. He said little or nothing about Latin America, North Korea and unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan.
But by sticking largely to generalities, he signaled he planned to battle Obama through the campaign’s last four weeks and two more televised debates on broad questions of leadership rather than the knotty details of national security policy.
In the Middle East, Romney promised to tighten the screws over Iran’s nuclear program; boost the U.S. naval presence in the region; build more ships and appoint one official to oversee U.S. aid efforts so that U.S. values and interests were upheld.
He accused Obama of sitting on the sidelines as Syria’s civil war expands, and promised to work with U.S. partners and allies to help arm elements of the Syrian opposition “who share our values.”
But he did not provide concrete details on how his policy would diverge from the Obama administration’s, which is to limit U.S. aid to non-lethal assistance while arms are channeled through Gulf countries such as Qatar.
Romney promised to recommit the United States to its alliance with Israel, declaring that Obama had let dangerous tensions intrude.
But he also said that a Romney administration would seek to advance the goal of “a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel” - a goal that Obama and his predecessors have also tried but failed to achieve.
Again, he gave no specifics of how he would bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.
In a video address that surfaced last month, Romney said he believed the Palestinians do not want peace and there was “just no way” to resolve the decades-long impasse.
Romney’s speech at the Virginia Military Institute, a military college in Lexington, Virginia, was clearly intended to show that he was ready to stiffen America’s spine in the face of new global challenges.
Romney was widely seen as having won the first presidential debate last Wednesday in Denver, and his strong performance halted a slide in the polls and appears to have given him new confidence.
Romney cited last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, and the wave of anti-U.S. protests across the region, as evidence that Obama’s approach to the tumultuous aftermath of the “Arab Spring” was failing.
“Our flag has been burned. Many of our citizens have been threatened and driven from their overseas homes by vicious mobs, shouting ‘Death to America.’ These mobs hoisted the black banner of Islamic extremism over American embassies on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks,” he said.
But while Romney dug into what he called Obama’s failure of leadership, he did little to illustrate how his responses would differ.
Romney repeated that his administration would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons capability - Obama has said Tehran will not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon - and was ready to impose new sanctions or tighten those already in place, much as the Obama administration has done.
The Republican challenger also promised to restore a permanent U.S. aircraft carrier presence to both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf - a U.S. aircraft carrier task force now usually rotates through the Gulf region - and to build 15 new ships per year, including three submarines, but did not say how he would pay for them.
Romney characterized the U.S. Navy fleet as “at levels not seen since 1916.” In fact, the size of the fleet - 285 active ships last year - has been roughly stable since 2005, long before Obama took office, according to Navy data.
On Afghanistan, Romney said he would pursue the NATO transition plan that would see most foreign troops depart by the end of 2014 and hand security responsibility to Afghan troops.
But while complaining about Obama’s “politically timed retreat,” he said nothing about extending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which is widely unpopular with the U.S. public.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Warren Strobel and Paul Simao