Romney would arm Syrian rebels

Last updated 07:18 09/10/2012

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney vows to pursue a more aggressive policy toward the Middle East, including arming Syrian rebels. Deborah Lutterbeck reports.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has assailed Barack Obama's foreign policy, saying the risk of conflict in the Middle East has grown under the president's leadership.

With his speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney hopes to undo a string of foreign policy stumbles, taking aim at an issue where polls show President Barack Obama holds a clear lead.

Saying there is, "a longing for American leadership in the Middle East", Romney called for the US to take a more assertive role in Syria. He also wants new conditions on aid to Egypt and would impose tighter sanctions on Iran.

Romney pledged that his administration would work to find elements of the Syrian opposition who share US values and ensure they obtain weapons needed to defeat Syrian President Bashir al-Assad's forces and end his crackdown. Syrian rebels have accused the United States  and Western allies of sitting on the sidelines of the conflict.

"Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran -rather than sitting on the sidelines," Romney said.

He also raised questions about Obama's handling of Libya and accused him of failing to use US diplomacy to shape events in Iran, Iraq, Israel, Russia, and elsewhere.

"The president is fond of saying that 'The tide of war is receding,"' Romney said. "And I want to believe him as much as anyone. But when we look at the Middle East today...it is clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office," he said.

With the race growing tighter after Obama's poor performance in last week's presidential debate - the first of three - Democrats and Republicans now are looking to Thursday's debate confrontation between Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.

And all in all both tickets are bearing down on their attempts to draw in the small percentage of voters who remain undecided in fewer than 10 states, with Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Florida all set for candidate visits this week.

The US president is not elected by the nationwide popular vote, but in a series of state-by-state contests.

Romney's campaign is working hard to chip away Obama's advantage among early voters, and there are signs the effort is paying off in North Carolina and Florida, two competitive states that the Republican nominee can ill afford to lose. Obama is doing better in Iowa, another battleground state important to both candidates.

Obama dominated early voting in key states four years ago, giving him a big advantage over Republican John McCain before Election Day even arrived.

In an election-year display of incumbent's power, Obama on Monday (local time) declared a national monument at the home of Latino labor leader Cesar Chavez, the United Farmworkers Union founder who died in 1993. That is designed as an open appeal to Hispanic voters in swing states, before the president moves from Los Angeles to San Francisco for more fundraising.

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Romney intended his foreign policy speech as a vehicle to send tough signals on Iran and Syria and portray Obama as weak for his administration's changing explanation for the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

The Obama campaign was hit back in advance.

"We're not going to be lectured by someone who has been an unmitigated disaster on foreign policy," Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Voters give Obama higher marks than Romney on questions of national security and crisis response, but world affairs in general are a distant priority compared with the struggling US economy, polling shows. Nevertheless, Romney's speech at Virginia Military Institute seeks to broaden his explanation of how he would serve as commander in chief.

After polls recently suggested Obama had narrow leads in several swing states, the Romney campaign says the race is tightening following his strong performance in last week's debate. To help maintain his momentum, Romney has tweaked his message over the last week, highlighting his compassionate side and centrist political positions.

Obama engaged in a bit of self-deprecation in his Los Angeles fundraising appearance on Monday, taking a good-natured shot at his own underwhelming debate performance last week, marvelling at how his friends in the entertainment business could turn in flawless showings every time.

"I can't always say the same," Obama said of his debate performance, compared to those of his entertainment business friends. He spoke to thousands of supporters who got the joke. It was Obama's most direct acknowledgement that Romney won their debate as the campaign entered its final month.

Obama appeared on stage after comments by actor George Clooney and performances by Katy Perry, Stevie Wonder, Jon Bon Jovi - and before a night-capping dinner for 150 guests at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant at US$25,000 (NZ$30,000) per person.

Even as Romney sought to reap further rewards from his debate performance, a string of good news for the president threatened to steal the former Massachusetts governor's spotlight.

A jobs report on Friday showing unemployment at the lowest levels of Obama's presidency, down to 7.8 per cent, was quickly followed on Saturday by a fundraising report showing Obama and Democrats had raised US$181 million in September. It was their best fundraising month of the campaign, but fell short of their record US$190 million raised in September 2008 as the president campaigned for his first term.

Romney's campaign has not released its report for the month, and Republicans sought to downplay Obama's financial advantage. The party's national chairman, Reince Priebus, said he had been counting all along on being outraised by Obama and Democrats.

- AP

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