Buoyed by a stellar debate performance that has put him back in contention for the White House, Republican nominee Mitt Romney has stepped up his critique of the Obama administration's foreign policy and promised to lay down the law with U.S. foes and friends alike – including Canada – if he wins next month's election.
As new polls on Monday showed Mr. Romney gaining on the President for the first time in weeks, the Republican candidate accused Mr. Obama of leaving the United States "at the mercy of events" in the Middle East – relying on "hope" instead of a strategy in the region – and of bungling the response to last month's attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya.
The charges came in a major speech that sought to strike the tone, if not the substance, of a Romney administration's foreign policy doctrine. And it homed in on one of Mr. Obama's few vulnerabilities on the national security file, namely his questionable handling of the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
The speech marked a course correction of sorts for Mr. Romney after his unsteady performance during a foreign jaunt in the summer – when he inadvertently insulted the British on their organization of the Olympics and the Palestinians on their work ethic – and his widely panned move to criticize the handling of the Libyan attack in real time.
He also raised the ire of Spaniards in last week's debate by suggesting they were spendthrifts.
On Monday, the Obama campaign launched a new ad that recalls those blunders, while a spokeswoman said of Mr. Romney: "The only person who has probably offended the Europeans more is [National Lampoon's European Vacation star] Chevy Chase."
But a Pew Research Center poll showed Mr. Romney pulling ahead of Mr. Obama in the wake of the debate. He had the support of 49 per cent of likely voters, compared to 45 per cent for Mr. Obama, a dramatic turnaround from the President's 51 per cent to 43 per cent lead in mid-September.
Critics have argued that the Obama administration was reluctant, for political reasons, to call the Benghazi attack a premeditated terrorist act, not a "spontaneous" protest over an anti-Muslim video. Conceding it was an act of terrorism cast doubt on the idea that al Qaeda has been decimated on Mr. Obama's watch.
Warning that al Qaeda remains "a strong force" in many countries, including Libya and Syria, Mr. Romney accused the President of naivety in his approach to the region.
"I know the President hopes for a safer, freer and more prosperous Middle East allied with us. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy," Mr. Romney said in his address at a Virginia military academy. "It's time to change course in the Middle East. ... America must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in our might."
Mr. Romney also indicated he would "identify and organize" Syrian rebels "who share our values" and ensure they get the "arms they need to defeat" the Assad regime's tanks and fighter jets. The Obama administration has frowned on arming the rebels with heavy weapons needed to bring down aircraft, fearful they could fall into the hands of terrorists.
After signalling last month that he and Mr. Obama would enforce the the same "red line" with regards to Iran – namely that it would not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon – Mr. Romney said in his speech that that he would prevent Iran from acquiring "nuclear weapons capability." That is a lower threshold for U.S. military intervention than under Mr. Obama.
Mr. Romney also insisted "only a new president" could move Israel and the Palestinians toward a peaceful two-state solution in the region, contradicting his remarks at a May fundraiser that the stalemate would remain "an unresolved problem."
The Republican nominee also had a warning for Russia on missile defence, saying "there will be no flexibility with [President] Vladimir Putin." And he put NATO allies on notice to boost "security spending" to at least 2 per cent of gross domestic product. Canada's defence spending, at 1.4 per cent of GDP, falls considerably short of that threshold.
Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Democratic president Bill Clinton, joined Obama campaign officials on a conference call later Monday to rebut Mr. Romney's speech. "If one of my students turned it in, they'd get a 'C,'" said Ms. Albright, now a professor at Georgetown University in Washington. "I just find him very shallow."