Mitt Romney called Monday for a change of course in America's Middle East policy, accusing President Obama of sitting on the sidelines in the face of a "profound upheaval" across the region. The Republican nominee pledged that, if elected, he would prosecute a far more engaged foreign policy, including helping to arm the opposition in Syria's bloody civil war.
"Hope is not a strategy," Romney said.
Romney spoke at the Virginia Military Institute in what was billed as a major foreign policy address. After aggressively challenging the incumbent on economics at last week's debate, Romney is looking to build on that performance with a more robust explanation of how he'd lead in the world, not just America.
The nominee argued Monday that Obama has watched passively as the Middle East has transformed, describing the recent deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya as part of that upheaval.
"The greater tragedy of it all is that we're missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East," Romney said. "Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our president is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity."
Romney focused on the fault lines of Libya, Egypt and especially Syria, where he said Obama has "failed" to lead. Departing from current U.S. policy, Romney said he would work with U.S. allies to "identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and then ensure that they obtain the arms they need to defeat" Bashar Assad's forces.
"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 through our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran -- rather than sitting on the sidelines," Romney said.
Romney, as he has before, called for changes in the way the U.S. approaches foreign aid, by tying assistance to reforms addressing human rights. He called for a tougher approach to the Iranian nuclear program and a reaffirmation of the U.S. alliance with Israel.
And he said attacks on U.S. embassies, and particularly the deadly strike in Libya, speak to a broader struggle that demands U.S. involvement.
"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's now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century," Romney said.
"I know the president hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with us. I share this hope," Romney continued. "But hope is not a strategy. We can't support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds."
The Obama campaign tried to undercut Romney's speech with a TV ad and lengthy memo Monday morning questioning whether the Republican candidate would move beyond "swagger and slogans" and talk specifics.
The campaign claimed Romney has "repeatedly taken positions outside of the mainstream and often to the right of even George W. Bush" and "wants to take us back to the same with-us-or-against-us approach that got us into wars without getting us out of them."
Romney's foreign policy positions have received mixed reviews. Conservatives back his tough talk on Iran and his criticism of the Obama administration for its perceived frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
However, Democrats mocked Romney at their convention in Charlotte for the Republican candidate's alleged missteps -- such as questioning whether London was prepared for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games during his visit there days before the kickoff.
He also drew criticism from the administration for lashing out at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for its handling of protests over an anti-Islam film. The Romney critique came as reports were first emerging that the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans had just been killed in a separate attack.
Romney, though, has amplified his criticism of the administration over its handling of the Libya strike. As recently as Thursday he called it a "tragic failure."
He said Monday "there is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East," and that if America does not step up, "others will ... and the world will grow darker."