LExington, Virginia: US President Barack Obama has "failed to lead in Syria" and the broader Middle East, and strains between his administration and ally Israel are emboldening Iran, White House hopeful Mitt Romney warned Monday.
Making the case in a major foreign policy speech that the United States and the Middle East are less safe now than they were at the start of Obama's term, Romney said the president's dithering had increased the threat of instability in a region clamoring for US leadership.
With the slowly improving economy providing less ammunition barely four weeks from the November 6 election, Romney's address at the Virginia Military Institute marked a bid to muscle in on turf largely seen as Obama's dominant preserve.
"The president has failed to lead in Syria, where more than 30,000 men, women and children have been massacred by the Assad regime over the past 20 months," and rebels do not have the necessary weapons to battle President Bashar al-Assad's troops, Romney said.
He warned that Obama's poor handling of the crisis is emblematic of a president that opts to "lead from behind" instead of asserting US influence.
Romney attacked Obama for "sitting on the sidelines" on the prickly issue of the Syrian rebels.
"In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets," Romney said.
"It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East."
But Romney stepped carefully, avoiding the call for the United States to directly provide weapons to rebels.
The Obama administration, worried that shoulder-fired missiles and other heavy weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists, has not provided direct arms support for the rebel groups, although it has arranged for delivery of communications equipment.
Romney acknowledged that Obama had taken some key steps, notably the elimination of chief terror suspect Osama bin Laden.
"But when we look at the Middle East today -- with Iran closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability... with violent extremists on the march, and with an American ambassador and three others dead (in Benghazi, Libya) likely at the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliates -- it is clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office," he said.
The Republican nominee, offering a foreign policy vision that he and his campaign believe differs sharply from Obama's, said he would keep Iran in check, chase terrorists in Libya and put conditions on US aid to Egypt.
Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee and a staunch supporter of greater US involvement in Syria, called Romney's speech "a blueprint for restoring America's strength in the world."
The speech comes the week after the first presidential debate, in which Romney was widely seen as trouncing an ineffective Obama.
The president lost a five-point lead in the polls in the days after the debate and the two men were even at 47 percent, pollster Gallup found on Monday, an early measure of the damage done by Obama's lackluster performance against a more aggressive and energetic Romney.
Obama still had a three-point edge, 49 to 46 percent, in Gallup's seven-day rolling average ending Saturday, which included polls before and after the debate.
At VMI, Romney aimed to put adversaries on notice that as president he would not tolerate the anti-American unrest that has been allowed to fester under Obama.
"I know the president hopes for a safer, freer and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy," Romney said.
"It is time to change course in the Middle East," he added.
"We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds... and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership, but of passivity."
Romney used the September 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya as an example of how extremists are exploiting perceived US weakness.
"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," Romney said adding that the Benghazi attack "was likely the work of the same forces that attacked our homeland on September 11th, 2001."