- Associated Press - Monday, October 8, 2012

LEXINGTON, Va. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Monday the risk of conflict in the Middle East “is higher now” than it was when President Obama took office. He proposed that the United States take a more assertive role in Syria and claimed that Mr. Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq has jeopardized U.S. interests.

Declaring that “it’s time to change course in the Middle East” and accusing Mr. Obama of “passivity,” Mr. Romney called for the U.S. to work with other countries to arm the Syrian rebels to help them defeat President Bashar Assad’s “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.”

Romney aides said their candidate is not calling for the U.S. to directly arm the rebels, but said he would support helping other countries provide the opposition with enough weaponry to force Mr. Assad from power.

Mr. Romney said American gains in Iraq — won during the war started by President George W. Bush — have eroded.

“America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence,” he said.

In a speech at the Virginia Military Institute here, Mr. Romney looked to paint the Democratic incumbent as a weak leader who has limited America’s influence on global affairs.

Mr. Obama’s campaign dismissed the Republican challenger’s address as a rehashed attempt to rewrite what they said is his record of past blunders and said he hardly differentiated himself from the president.

While Mr. Romney took a hawkish tone during the GOP primaries this year, Monday’s address highlighted the work of “patriots of both parties” and looked to cast the Republican nominee as a statesman and part of a long and bipartisan tradition of American leadership in the world. He said the U.S. should use its power “wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively.”

Mr. Romney‘s attempt to outline his approach as commander in chief comes amid turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. Iran is believed to be pursuing a nuclear weapon, Syria is locked in a civil war, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are moribund, and anti-American protests recently erupted in several countries. Last month, attackers linked to al Qaeda killed four Americans in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

In the speech, Mr. Romney emphasized Iran’s ties to the Syrian government and insisted the U.S., through allies, should “support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran rather than sitting on the sidelines.” That would allow the U.S. to “develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East.”

Mr. Romney also called for tougher sanctions on Iran than those that exist, though he did not say how he would strengthen them. He said he would condition aid to Egypt on continued support for its peace treaty with neighboring Israel. Current law already includes such a condition.

Mr. Romney criticized Mr. Obama for a “politically timed retreat” from Afghanistan but said he would maintain the same 2014 deadline the president has set for the pullout of U.S. troops and the transition to Afghan security forces.

The Republican nominee also emphasized his commitment to a two-state solution for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, a process he dismissed during a secretly videotaped fundraiser in May. He also criticized the administration for its handling of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

“As the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others,” Mr. Romney said.

The Republican has given several foreign policy speeches during the campaign, including one in Reno, Nev., before a weeklong summer trip abroad during which he offended his British hosts by questioning their security preparations for the Olympic Games. At another stop, in Israel, he raised hackles among Palestinians, who charged him with racism after he said culture was part of the reason Israelis were more economically successful than their Palestinian neighbors.

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