Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney sought to distinguish his foreign policy positions from those of President Barack Obama in a variety of areas--from Syria to China to Venezuela--in a speech before veterans on Tuesday. He aggressively attacked the president's leadership in the Middle East, his administration's potential role in a spate of national security leaks, and looming Defense Department cuts spurred by a deficit deal made with Congress.
"When it comes to national security and foreign policy, as with our economy, the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunity. We haven't seen much in the president's first term that inspires confidence in a second," Romney said before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev.
"The president's policies have made it harder to recover from the deepest recession in 70 years, exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify, compromised our national-security secrets, and in dealings with other nations, given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved, and apology where it is not due," Romney said.
But despite repeatedly citing the need for "clarity" when it comes to U.S. leadership in the world, Romney provided little more detail on how he plans to achieve his foreign policy agenda that includes preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, supporting budding democracies in the Middle East, and cracking down on China's currency manipulation and unfair trade policies.
And when it came to discussing the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, the former Massachusetts governor stuck with his plan to consult the commanders in the field.
"As president, my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014," he said. "I will evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation and the safety of our troops."
In contrast, Obama was able to cite his foreign policy accomplishments, considered a source of strength for his re-election campaign amid the still struggling economy, in his VFW address delivered Monday.
"As you reflect on recent years, as we look ahead to the challenges we face as a nation and the leadership that's required, you don't just have my words, you have my deeds. You have my track record. You have the promises I've made and the promises that I've kept," he said. In addition to ticking off the death of Osama bin Laden and the toppling of Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, Obama also referred to the end of the Iraq War, an event that went unmentioned by Romney.
"Well, when you're commander-in-chief, you owe the troops a plan, you owe the country a plan, and that includes recognizing not just when to begin wars, but also how to end them," Obama said. "So we brought our troops home responsibly. They left with their heads held high, knowing they gave Iraqis a chance to forge their own future."
With Romney preparing to embark on a three-country trip overseas--to Israel, England, and Poland--both campaigns took the natural opportunity to highlight their foreign policy differences, using high-profile surrogates in addition to their back-to-back addresses.
"It's really important when Governor Romney goes overseas that he explains what he would do as commander-in-chief," said Tim Roemer, former U.S. ambassador to India, on MSNBC. "When you audition to be president of the United States and when you're your party's nominee, you can't come up with platitudes, 'I would do the opposite of President Obama on Israel' or Russia is the 'main geopolitical foe' in today's world. Those are statements from the 19th century, not reflecting a strategic vision of the 21st century."
Romney supporters sought to lay blame on Obama for pending reductions in defense spending, called "sequestration," and the result of a deficit bargain struck by the White House and House Republicans. The cuts are set to take effect next year only if the two sides fail to come up with other cuts to replace them.
"Barack Obama is holding our national security and our military hostage to his domestic agenda of tax increases, and that's unacceptable," said Alex Wong, one of Romney's senior foreign policy advisers during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
"The only part of the budget that Barack Obama seems all too willing to cut is the military, and we have to make clear that if sequestration goes through, 200,000 active duty troops will be laid off. In this economy that Barack Obama has failed to get going, he's going to be sending troops from our front lines to the unemployment line, and that is unacceptable," he said.
Republicans tend to do better among veteran voters and recent polling shows Romney is no exception. But overall among voters, Obama is seen as a stronger leader on the world stage, according to one new poll. Obama leads Romney by 10 points when asked who is better or would be better at serving as commander-in-chief, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey set to be released on Tuesday evening.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.