LEXINGTON, Va. — Mitt Romney declared on Monday the U.S. must join other nations in helping arm Syrian rebels to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, casting President Barack Obama's efforts as weak and part of a broader lack of leadership in the Middle East and around the globe.
Hoping to bolster his own foreign policy credentials, the Republican presidential challenger said he would identify and organize those in the Syrian opposition who share American values, then work with American allies to "ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters and fighter jets."
"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," Romney said.
In a wide-ranging address at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney attempted to establish an image for voters of himself as a man who would be a strong commander in chief. In his remarks, he criticized Obama's policies toward Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Israel.
Nowhere did he emphasize a different course as strongly as in Syria. Romney cast the civil war there as a proxy conflict with Iran — and said it's in America's interest to court an opposition likely to play a key role in leading a future Syria.
Activists say more than 32,000 people have died in Syria's conflict, which began 19 months ago with Assad's government cracking down on protests. That crackdown was followed by armed rebellion in many parts of the country and, eventually, a full-scale civil war.
Obama's administration still seeks a peaceful political transition, even though the president acknowledged in August that the likelihood of a soft landing for the conflict "seems pretty distant."
Romney aides said he wasn't calling for the U.S. to directly arm the rebels.
Nor has Obama. The president's re-election campaign dismissed Romney's remarks as "saber-rattling" and accused the Republican of refusing to outline just how his policies would differ from the incumbent's.
The administration has been quietly coordinating with partners in the region who want to provide military assistance. But Obama has opposed directly providing weapons to the rebels or using U.S. air power to prevent Syrian jets from flying.
The U.S. role in coordination is currently aimed at maintaining some measure of control over which groups receive weapons. Administration officials have been pressing America's Arab allies for months about the danger of equipment such as shoulder-launched rockets and other heavy weaponry falling into the wrong hands. The official line is that any arms assistance to the rebels only further militarizes a conflict that should be solved through a peaceful transition strategy.
Privately, officials concede that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have made different decisions, and the U.S. is working with them so that concerns about extremism and the proliferation of certain types of weapons are taken into account in their decision-making.
The head of the Turkey-based Syrian National Council, the main Syrian opposition group, said Romney's comments were the "right statement." Abdelbaset Sieda said he was not disappointed in the U.S. president, but added that "Obama must do more to stop the killing."
When pressed, Romney policy advisers refused to say if the Republican would support or encourage allies to deliver heavier weaponry, including shoulder-fired rockets, to the opposition forces in Syria.
Romney's comments come at a critical time in part because the violence in Syria has spilled over the border and into Turkey, with fighting continuing Monday for a sixth straight day. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Saturday the conflict between those neighboring countries could embroil the broader region.
There also is turmoil in the wider Middle East and North Africa. Beyond Syria, Iran is believed to be pursuing a nuclear weapon, talks between Israel and the Palestinians are moribund and anti-American protests recently erupted in several countries. Last month, attackers linked to al-Qaida killed four Americans in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The Republican nominee used his Monday speech to try to paint Democrat Obama as a weak leader who has limited America's influence on global affairs. Still, Romney highlighted the work of "patriots of both parties" and looked to cast himself as a statesman and part of a long and bipartisan tradition of American leadership in the world. He said the U.S. should use its power "wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively."
"It is clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office," Romney said.
On another international topic, Romney said he wouldn't allow Russian President Vladimir Putin any "flexibility," a jibe at Obama, who was caught on a microphone telling then-President Dmitry Medvedev last March that the U.S. would have more flexibility to work on missile defense issues after the election.
But the bulk of Romney's speech focused on the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan.
Romney said American gains in Iraq — won during the war pressed by President George W. Bush — have eroded, though he did not say if he would attempt to send U.S. troops back to that country.
He called for tougher sanctions on Iran than those that exist, though he did not say how he would strengthen them. He said he would condition aid to Egypt on continued support for its peace treaty with neighboring Israel. Current law includes such a condition.
Romney criticized Obama for a "politically timed retreat" from Afghanistan, but said he would maintain the same 2014 deadline the president has set for the pullout of U.S. troops and the transition to Afghan security forces.
The Republican nominee also emphasized his commitment to a two-state solution for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, a process he dismissed during a secretly videotaped fundraiser in May. He also criticized the administration for its handling of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
"As the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others," Romney said.
The Republican has given several foreign policy speeches during the campaign, including one in Reno, Nev., before a weeklong summer trip abroad during which he offended his British hosts by questioning their security preparations for the Olympic Games. At another stop, in Israel, he raised hackles among Palestinians who accused him of racism after he said culture was part of the reason Israelis were more economically successful than their Palestinian neighbors.
In the fall, Romney faced criticism for his quick and harsh reaction to news of protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and near-simultaneous attacks at the consulate in Libya. Before the administration knew of Stevens' death, Romney criticized Obama for sympathizing with the attackers. In the aftermath, top Republicans — including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the 2008 presidential nominee — urged Romney to give a speech laying out his vision for U.S. foreign policy.
Kasie Hunt reported from Washington. AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller in Los Angeles and AP writers Karin Laub in Beirut and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.