ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Later this month, President Obama and Mitt Romney will meet for a debate focused exclusively on foreign policy, but the Republican is not waiting until then to confront the issue. Today, in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney attacked the Obama administration's policies, especially in the Middle East.
MITT ROMNEY: It's clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office.
SIEGEL: We have more on that speech first from NPR's Ari Shapiro.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The setting of this speech was designed to convey authority and power. Romney stood in front of a row of flags at the Virginia Military Institute. The audience was mostly white-haired men in suits and cadets with buzz cuts and dress white uniforms. Romney entered to the tune of a military march.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: He said in his strongest words yet that President Obama has made the U.S. less safe.
ROMNEY: 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. We can't support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds.
SHAPIRO: Romney accused the president of mushiness on virtually every international challenge of the last four years. And on a wide range of issues, from trade to Syria's civil war, he said his own White House would be more aggressive.
ROMNEY: In Syria, I'll work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and then ensure that they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks and helicopters and fighter jets.
SHAPIRO: The Obama administration has stopped short of fully arming Syrian rebels. They're afraid the weapons could end up with terrorists. In other areas, Romney's agenda sounded nearly identical to current policy.
ROMNEY: I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran and will tighten the sanctions we currently have.
SHAPIRO: Romney has lots of economic experience, but he's less versed in foreign policy. For the first time in decades, polls showed that Americans trust Democrats more than Republicans on international issues. But the Democrats' favorability on national security shrank after attacks in Libya that killed an ambassador and other Americans. The Obama administration has struggled to explain those attacks, first saying the riots were a spontaneous response to an inflammatory film and later admitting that the plot had links to organized terrorism. Romney sees an opportunity to take advantage of that.
ROMNEY: But it is our responsibility and the responsibility of the president to use America's greatest power to shape history, not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.
SHAPIRO: Some of Romney's statements today seemed to contradict things he said before. For example, in this speech, Romney promised to recommit America to a Palestinian-Israeli two-state solution. But in a private fundraiser where someone secretly recorded this video, he said, quote, "the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace."
ROMNEY: The pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.
SHAPIRO: For Romney, this speech is effort to hit reset on a foreign policy agenda that has stumbled at times, most recently in his initial response to the Libya attacks, when he accused President Obama of sympathizing with the attackers. The Obama campaign was quick to remind voters of those incidents and others in a new TV ad running here in Virginia.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
SHAPIRO: When Romney finished his speech, he sat down for a roundtable with a group of retired military generals. Reporters were not allowed in, but photographers were permitted to take their cameras into the start of the meeting, one more set of images designed to portray a commander in chief in waiting. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Lexington, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.