Mitt Romney called Tuesday for an overhaul of America's expensive foreign aid, suggesting the unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere could be tempered if the U.S. would stop handing out billions of dollars with few strings attached and start linking aid to free enterprise programs with the help of the private sector.
The Republican presidential nominee, in a speech relatively free of campaign-trail talking points, addressed the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York a few hours before President Obama took the stage.
In the president's address early Tuesday afternoon, Obama focused almost exclusively on the issue of human trafficking.
"It is a debasement of our common humanity," Obama said, describing the international problem as "modern slavery."
The president touted his administration's efforts to sanction countries with the worst trafficking records, and announced new plans for monitoring the problem inside U.S. borders.
Obama addressed the unrest in the Middle East earlier in the day, during his speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
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Romney used his appearance before the Clinton Global Initiative conference to do the same. Romney said he and others have been "troubled" by Middle East events ranging from the bloodshed in Syria to the assassination of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, but argued the U.S. can help change course in the region.
"We somehow feel that we're at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events," Romney said.
Romney said the U.S. needs to help empower people economically, in a region desperate for work. Noting that decades of foreign aid have not extinguished "the suffering and hardship," Romney called for big changes in the approach to foreign assistance.
"Work -- that has to be at the heart of our effort to help people build economies that can create jobs (for) young and old alike," Romney said.
His plan, which he called "Prosperity Pacts," calls for tying development money to requirements that countries allow U.S. investment and remove trade barriers.
Romney's focus on foreign aid was likely to draw attention to the situation in Egypt, a U.S. ally and the recipient of billions of dollars in American assistance each year. That aid has come under new scrutiny in the wake of protests that saw Egyptians scaling the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Romney has said he would put stricter conditions on U.S. aid to Egypt's newly installed government, now headed by an Islamist president. The Obama administration reinstated military aid to Egypt earlier this year despite concerns about abuse as the country transitions to democratic rule.
Romney said Tuesday that aside from tying "aid with trade," his plan would leverage the private sector and focus efforts on supporting small- and medium-sized business.
The Republican candidate couldn't resist making one political jab. At the opening of his remarks, following a brief introduction by former President Bill Clinton, Romney thanked him and quipped: "If there's one thing we've learned in this election season, by the way, it is that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good."
Romney joked that he just has to wait for the "bounce to happen."
Both men were drawing contrasts in a presidential contest in which the state of the U.S. economy has been paramount, but which shifted focus this month to foreign policy after attacks in Libya killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador there.
In interviews and at campaign events Monday, Romney assailed Obama's leadership abroad, leading a chorus of Republicans in criticizing the president for what they said was minimizing the death of the Ambassador Chris Stevens. Obama, in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes," said recent violence in the Mideast was due to "bumps in the road" on the way to democracy. Romney on Monday also suggested Obama was leaving American foreign policy at the mercy of events instead of working to shape global politics in America's interest.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.