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Romney walks political tightrope on foreign policy

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Wed July 25, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Romney calls for full suspension of Iran's nuclear enrichment
  • Mitt Romney espouses a conservative world view, but more moderate foreign policies
  • Romney criticizes President Obama for a lack of leadership on international issues
  • Romney travels to England, Israel and Poland later this week

Watch an exclusive, candid interview with Mitt Romney about his campaign, the shootings in Colorado and his focus on selecting a running mate on "Piers Morgan Tonight" at 9 ET/PT Thursday night on CNN.

Washington (CNN) -- Mitt Romney's political tightrope in his quest for the presidency has been especially evident on foreign policy, with the certain Republican nominee sounding conservative while also espousing more moderate approaches similar to his opponent, President Barack Obama.

Facing opinion polls that show more public support for Obama on foreign policy, Romney has constantly criticized what he calls the president's failure to lead on international issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran's nuclear ambitions and Syria.

On closer view, though, details of Romney's foreign policies so far have advocated sanctions, coalition-building and other diplomatic approaches similar to Obama administration policies.

In a speech Tuesday, the former Massachusetts governor sought to create more distance from Obama in advance of Romney's much-publicized trip later this week to key U.S.-allies England, Israel and Poland.

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The address to war veterans included stinging attacks of Obama's policies, which Romney said weakened the nation and its international standing, along with pledges to fulfill the conservative view of the United States as a force for good that uses all its power, including military, to exert influence in the world.

Romney calls for an 'American century'

"I am not ashamed of American power," Romney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nevada, adding "I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced."

Instead, Romney said he wanted to bring an "American century" in which the United States has the world's strongest economy and military that secures peace through its strength.
"And if by absolute necessity we must employ it, we must wield our strength with resolve," Romney said to applause. "In an American century, we lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world."

Failure to exert that leading role, Romney warned, will provide an opening in which "other powers will take our place, pulling history in a very different direction."

Such a message is part of Romney's effort to contrast his positions from Obama's diplomatic approach, such as oft-stalled multinational negotiations with Iran and North Korea intended to reduce their nuclear capabilities and efforts to build an international coalition to end the carnage in Syria.

Those tactics don't work, Romney has argued, saying the Arab Spring rush for democratic change has spun out of control and Obama's failure to fully support Israel has harmed the Middle East peace process while strengthening Iran's hand in the nuclear talks.

In Tuesday's speech, Romney called for a halt to any enrichment of nuclear materials by Iran and signaled that if president, he would launch a military operation if necessary to prevent Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons capability.

"I pledge to you and to all Americans that if I become commander in chief, I will use every means necessary to protect ourselves and the region, and to prevent the worst from happening while there is still time," Romney said. "It is a mistake -- and sometimes a tragic one -- to think that firmness in American foreign policy can only bring tension or conflict. The surest path to danger is always weakness and indecision."

While Romney's statement went further than Obama in demanding a halt to any enrichment, the implied threat of possible military action amounted to the same policy as the Obama administration, which says all options remain on the table.

Obama aides note that the president has been a leader on a host of international issues, including nuclear non-proliferation efforts and the building of an unprecedented international coalition including some Arab states to launch a miltiary intervention in Libya.

The Obama team also is quick to note two major foreign policy triumphs -- the ending of the Iraq war, as promised by the president in his 2008 campaign for the White House and the U.S. mission that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Romney's speech Tuesday also criticized the Obama administration for leaks of classified information on the bin Laden raid and other issues. Obama's campaign responded that such criticism was a diversion.

"With all of the complex global challenges facing our nation today, Gov. Romney's much-hyped foreign policy speech once again is all bluster, offering no specific plans for our relations with any region of the world," Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said before Romney spoke.

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Despite his consistent criticism of Obama's policies, Romney's proposals have been general in nature and sometimes appear to mimic the Obama approach.

On Syria, Romney has called for working with allies to arm the rebels, but stopped short of advocating U.S. military involvement, which is similar to the administration's stance so far. The main difference is in visibility -- Romney says the United States should have been a leading voice from the start in calling for al Assad's ouster and support for the rebels, while the administration adopted a more neutral stance seeking a diplomatic resolution that has failed to materialize.

Regarding the Middle East conflict, Romney advocates a lock-step approach with Israel instead of the administration's attempt to assume more of a mediator's role.

Such a show of support may play well among Jewish voters in the United States, as well as pro-Israel evangelicals whom Romney struggled to court during the Republican primaries.

And Romney's visit to Israel this week, including a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, may draw attention to Obama's sometimes shaky relationship with the Israeli leader.

Israel re-enters focus ahead of Romney trip

In January, Romney said at a Republican presidential debate that Obama "threw Israel under the bus" for suggesting that negotiations on a future Palestinian state begin with borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.

Since then, however, Romney has avoided specific proposals for a peace plan, saying on his website that he would "reject any measure that would frustrate direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians."

Romney's stance on the Afghanistan war shows the nuance he uses to try to keep conservatives and moderates happy. While criticizing Obama for announcing plans to bring home some troops before the November election, he supports the timetable agreed to by NATO of withdrawing combat forces by the end of 2014.

A recent CNN/ORC international poll showed 53% of respondents believed Obama would handle foreign policy better than Romney, who got 41% support. Obama's advantage was greater -- 54% to 38% -- among independent voters considered key to the election.

With his overseas trip this week, Romney seeks to burnish his foreign policy credentials by meeting with top leaders of all three allies. However, Romney's aides say no big policy announcements are expected on the trip.

CNN's Kevin Liptak and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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