LEXINGTON, Va.—Looking to bolster his foreign policy credentials in the final weeks before Election Day, Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of "passive leadership" in the Middle East and linked last month's deadly attack on the United States Consulate in Libya to a larger critique of what he described as Obama's failed leadership overseas.
"Hope is not a strategy," Romney argued in a Monday morning address at the Virginia Military Institute.
Romney used his speech to double-down on his criticism of the Obama administration's response to the attack in Libya, which claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The Romney team is hoping to capitalize on what it believes is the Obama administration's misstep in pointing to an anti-Islamic video as the trigger for last month's attack as well as criticism over whether the attack could have been stopped in the first place by beefing up security at its overseas outpost.
"The attacks on America last month should not be seen as random acts. They are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East—a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century. And the fault lines of this struggle can be seen clearly in Benghazi itself," Romney said.
He argued the attack in Benghazi was "likely the work of the same forces that attacked our homeland" during the 9/11 attacks 11 years ago.
"This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration's attempts to convince us of that for so long," Romney said. "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 argued that Obama's policies "have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East." He accused the president of leading by "passivity" and said the nation is missing a "historic opportunity to win friends who share our values" by exerting a "strong global leadership."
"I want to be very clear: The blame for the murder of our people in Libya, and the attacks on our embassies in so many other countries, lies solely with those who carried them out—no one else," Romney said. "But it is the responsibility of our president to use America's great power to shape history—not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama."
Romney said America could "take pride" in military accomplishments under Obama's watch—including the killing of Osama bin Laden. But the GOP candidate downplayed that success, insisting the threat of al-Qaida remains "a strong force." He suggested Obama has not implemented a full strategy to deal with other terrorist threats.
"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," Romney said.
Romney offered some new details on his foreign policy approach. Among other things, he called for more direct intervention in Syria, arguing that anti-government forces should have weapons. He said Obama has "failed to lead" in the region.
The speech comes as Romney tries again to gain advantage over what he has repeatedly described as Obama's "weak" and "naive" foreign policy approach. But it also occurs as Romney tries to clean up his own perceived foreign policy missteps, including his widely criticized response to the violence in Libya, in which he accused Obama of sympathizing with those who had launched the attacks there.
Romney is also still trying to undo damage from an overseas trip he took in July that was largely overshadowed by his suggestion that London hadn't done enough to prepare for the Summer Olympics and by a swipe at Palestinians, whom he suggested hadn't moved ahead economically because of their culture.
On Sunday, the Obama campaign used the trip to preemptively attack Romney's speech.
"We're not going to be lectured by someone who has been an unmitigated disaster on foreign policy every time he's dipped his toe in the foreign policy waters," spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One as Obama launched a West Coast fundraising swing.
"The only person who has offended Europe more is probably Chevy Chase," Psaki added in an apparent nod to "National Lampoon's European Vacation."
Romney has come under criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for not offering enough details on what his foreign policy approach would be if he wins the White House. In previewing the speech Sunday, Romney aides argued he would offer "new details" on what his plan would be, but beyond his proposal on Syria and tougher new language on Obama's response to the Libya attacks, Romney largely stuck to familiar territory.
His VMI speech included points he's made before on the campaign trail, including a tougher stance against Iran and more clarity in Middle East policy. He repeated his argument that the country's overseas leadership has diminished under Obama's watch.
"I believe that if America does not lead, others will—others who do not share our interests and our values—and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us. America's security and the cause of freedom cannot afford four more years like the last four years," Romney said. "I am running for president because I believe the leader of the free world has a duty, to our citizens, and to our friends everywhere, to use America's great influence—wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively—to shape events in ways that secure our interests, further our values, prevent conflict, and make the world better—not perfect, but better."
Olivier Knox contributed reporting from Los Angeles.