Out on the Trail, Romney Broadens Foreign Policy Critique of Obama

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Win McNamee / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at Van Dyck Park September 13, 2012 in Fairfax, Virginia

Fairfax, Va.

Returning to the campaign trail a day after his barbs at Barack Obama’s handling of the Middle Eastern attacks sparked recriminations, Mitt Romney amplified his criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, arguing the President had put the U.S. “at the mercy of events, instead of shaping events.”

Romney kicked off his remarks in this bellwether Northern Virginia suburb by blasting Obama for reducing the might of the U.S. military. “We have to have a military second to none, and that’s so strong no one would ever think of testing it” Romney said. Obama, he argued, had erred in scaling back the country’s capacity to exert its strength around the world.

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“This president has done something I find very hard to understand,” Romney said.  “Ever since FDR, we’ve had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once. And he’s saying, no — we’re going to cut that back to only one conflict.” The line drew applause from the crowd of some 2,700 gathered in a park across from a high school. But it was arguably an off-key note at a moment when even large factions of the Republican Party have grown weary of grinding wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Romney’s withering attacks on the President’s handling of the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the deadly attacks on the temporary consulate in Libya on Tuesday make clear that he intends to take a hawkish position on foreign policy – a perch from which he can criticize Obama as a feckless apologist who has diminished America’s standing abroad. Romney, whose budget blueprint includes an increase in military funding, slammed the incumbent for proposing deep cuts to defense appropriation through a budget that slices spending and the sequester agreed to as part of the debt-limit deal.

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“If I’m President of the U.S., we will restore our military commitment and keep America the strongest military in the world,” he said. The world needs American leadership. The Middle East needs American leadership.”

The former Massachusetts governor sparked a bipartisan backlash Tuesday night for blasting Obama’s “disgraceful” decision to “sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” (In fact, Obama had no role in the statement Romney was referring to, issued by the U.S. embassy in Egypt, and the attacks had yet to occur when it went out.) Despite the criticism his remarks drew, on Wednesday morning Romney doubled down, arguing it was “a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.” And his remarks Thursday foreshadow an intent to keep hammering away.

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Foreign policy has been an area of relative strength for Obama, who has regularly lead on the subject in the polls. And while it’s a topic on which Republicans have traditionally thrived, it’s also one where Romney’s resume is thin — a weakness exacerbated by his uneven performance on an international trip this summer. But the attacks in Egypt and Libya, and the specter of regional tumult that accompanies them, have thrust foreign affairs to the forefront of the presidential race with less than two months to go.

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Romney advisers say they believe foreign policy – the subject of the candidates’ first national debate, on Oct. 3 – favors their candidate. Public support for the course Obama took during the Arab spring could plummet if the tinderbox ignites. Advisers say Romney’s controversial criticism of Obama bore out a criticism he has been leveling at Obama at least since 2010, when he published a book, No Apology, that accused the President of kowtowing to foreign governments. At Thursday’s Fairfax rally, several fans toted copies of the book. “Give ‘em hell, Mitt!” one yelled.

Not everyone was on Romney’s side. As the candidate began his remarks, he was heckled by a man who cried, “Why are you politicizing Libya?” To drown him out, the crowd began a U-S-A chant and placed a campaign placard in front of his face before the man was escorted out. Romney, who had just issued a halting tribute to America’s four fallen diplomats – “What a tragedy to lose such a wonderful, wonderful, uh, wonderful people that have been so wonderful” — seemed a little rattled. “I would offer a moment of silence, but one gentleman doesn’t want to be silent, so we’re going to keep on going,” he said. “Let me talk about something else.”

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