* Republican will set the stage for second debate
* He would seek to arm Syrian rebels
* Obama campaign fires off sharp response
By Steve Holland
LEXINGTON, Va., Oct 8 (Reuters) - Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will vow to pursue a more aggressive policy toward the Middle East on Monday if elected in an attempt to draw a sharp distinction with how President Barack Obama has handled Libya, Iran, Syria and the Arab-Israeli dispute.
Romney, in remarks at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, will make a case that his policy views reflect what advisers called the mainstream “peace through strength” doctrine they said had been pursued by prior presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton.
The address will help Romney set the stage for his second presidential debate with the Democratic incumbent on Oct. 16. The next debate, at Hofstra University in New York state, will cover both domestic and foreign policy in a town hall format.
Romney was widely seen as having won the first debate last Wednesday in Denver, and his strong performance has halted a slide in the polls and appears to have given him new confidence for the last month of campaigning.
Romney will say that Obama has pursued a strategy of “passivity” instead of partnership with U.S. allies in the region.
“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,” he will say, according to speech excerpts released by his campaign.
Romney will use to illustrate his views the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
Romney got himself into trouble in the immediate aftermath of the attack by accusing the Obama administration of an apologetic response to Muslims upset over a video made in the United States that lampooned the Prophet Mohammed. Romney was seen as injecting politics into a national tragedy.
But the criticism of late has turned to the Obama administration’s handling of the situation, with some lawmakers accusing the State Department of providing insufficient security for Americans there.
And the White House for days clung to its insistence that the attack was linked to the Mohammed video until finally conceding publicly that it was a terrorist action on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“No, as 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 will say.
Romney will promise that if elected Nov. 6, he will vigorously pursue those responsible for the Libyan attacks, as Obama has vowed to do.
He will also pledge to tighten sanctions on Iran to give up its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions and deploy warships in the region to apply pressure on Tehran.
He would also increase military assistance and coordination to Israel, which has threatened a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Romney will pledge that his administration would work to find elements of the Syrian opposition who share U.S. values and ensure they obtain weapons needed to defeat Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad’s forces and end his brutal crackdown. Syrian rebels have accused the United States and Western allies of sitting on the sidelines of the conflict.
“Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran -rather than sitting on the sidelines,” Romney will say.
Romney will say electing a new U.S. president will offer a fresh opportunity to try once again to reach a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Romney is a strong supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Advisers to Romney said the Republican’s foreign policy should be viewed through a mainstream context, that Democratic and Republican presidents have projected American muscle abroad and that Obama has departed from this tradition.
“I do think it’s a bipartisan tradition. It’s a recognition that strength is not provocative. It’s weakness that is provocative, and there is a fundamental difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney,” said a top Romney foreign policy adviser, Rich Williamson.
The Obama campaign issued a withering attack on Romney ahead of the speech, pointing out that the Republican committed several verbal gaffes that generated controversy during his July trip to London, Jerusalem and Poland.
“Just as a reminder, this is the same guy who, when he went overseas on his trip, the only person who has offended Europe more is probably Chevy Chase,” she told reporters in a reference to the actor who starred in the comedy “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”