Mitt Romney called on Monday for Syrian rebels to be supplied with heavy weaponry as he condemned Barack Obama for failing to lead an international response to President Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of civilians.
The Republican presidential challenger told voters that the US must spend more, not less, on defence and effectively fight a proxy war against Iran by ensuring Syrian anti-government forces "obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets".
"Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them," Romney said in a speech in Virginia. "We should be working no less vigorously through our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran - rather than sitting on the sidelines."
The former Massachusetts governor did not specify which rebel factions should be armed, nor if the US should arm them directly or facilitate supply by allies. Diverging from prepared remarks, he said the US should work "through" its global partners, rather than "with".
Romney quoted a Syrian woman's comments to a National Public Radio interview to sum up the likely response to Washington's failure to act on the killing of 30,000 civilians. "We will not forget that you forgot about us," she said.
Senator John McCain, a long-time advocate of US intervention in Syria and Obama's opponent in 2008, hailed Romney's speech to cadets at the Virginia Military Institute as "a blueprint for restoring America's strength in the world".
Romney consistently trails Obama in polls on foreign policy, reversing a typical Republican advantage. His national post-debate "bounce" continued yesterday as he drew level with the president in daily tracking polling by Gallup and Rasmussen.
He mounted a wide-ranging assault on Obama's foreign policy, telling him "hope is not a strategy". Referring to a now-infamous remark by an Obama aide, he said: "It is the responsibility of our president to use America's great power to shape history, not to lead from behind."
Romney also revived his criticism of Obama's response to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in which Chris Stevens, its ambassador to Libya, was killed. He accused the White House of misleading the public.
"This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration's attempts to convince us of that for so long," he said. "No, as the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists."
Romney said the Sept 11 attack "was likely the work of forces affiliated with those that attacked our homeland on September 11, 2001".
Despite the president's endorsement of the Arab Spring uprisings, Romney alleged that he had emboldened enemies by placing "great strains" on America's key alliance with Israel and failing to give "the tangible support that our partners want and need" across the Middle East.
He reiterated his promise that, like Obama, he would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. "I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have," he said.
Despite a $1.2?trillion budget deficit, he attacked Obama's plans for cuts to military budgets and proposed returning to Cold War-level spending. Analysts say Romney's plan would raise annual spending from $525?billion next year to $986?billion by 2022.
Shrugging off criticism for labelling Russia as America's "number-one geopolitical foe" earlier this year, the Republican said he would show "no flexibility with Vladimir Putin" on US missile defence plans in eastern Europe, contrary to an offer by Obama caught on a live microphone.
Romney went further than before in suggesting that significant numbers of US forces may need to remain in Afghanistan past Obama's 2014 withdrawal date. "President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war," he said. "But the route to more war - and to potential attacks here at home - is a politically timed retreat."