Mitt Romney, the US Republican presidential nominee, has pledged to pursue a more assertive policy towards the Middle East if elected, in an attempt to draw a sharp distinction with how President Barack Obama has handled Libya, Iran, Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.
Romney, speaking at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington on Monday, made a case that his policy views reflect what advisers called the mainstream "peace through strength" doctrine they said had been pursued by prior presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton.
In his speech, Romney highlighted what he called his "vision for a freer, more prosperous and more peaceful world".
He used his speech to illustrate his views on the September 11 assault on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which Chris Stevens, the US ambassador, and three other Americans were killed.
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He said the attacks were "not random" but rather "part of a larger upheaval" in the region.
The Benghazi attacks were likely aligned with forces linked to those who attacked the US in September 2001, Romney said.
Romney got himself into trouble in the immediate aftermath of the attack by accusing the Obama administration of an apologetic response to Muslims upset over a video made in the US that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad.
Romney was seen by his critics as injecting politics into a national tragedy.
But the criticism of late has turned to the Obama administration's handling of the situation, with some politicians accusing the state department of providing insufficient security for Americans there.
Setting the stage
Al Jazeera's Alan Fisher, reporting from Washington DC, said Monday's address showed that Republicans felt a need to concentrate not just on the economy, as they have been doing, but also on foreign policy.
Romney was widely seen as having won the first debate last Wednesday in Denver, Colorado, and his strong performance has halted a slide in the polls and appears to have given him new confidence for the last month of campaigning.
Monday's speech helps him set the stage for his second presidential debate with Obama on October 16.
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The next debate, at Hofstra University in New York state, will cover both domestic and foreign policy in a town hall format.
Romney said that Obama has pursued a strategy of "passivity" instead of partnership with US allies in the Middle East.
"Hope is not a strategy," he said about the Obama administration's approach.
Romney called for the US to take a more assertive role in Syria, saying "the president has failed to lead in Syria, where more than 30,000 men, women, and children have been massacred by the Assad regime over the past 20 months", and rebels do not have the necessary weapons to battle President Bashar al-Assad's troops.
He said Obama's presidency has also strained US ties with chief Middle East ally Israel, leading to a "dangerous situation" that has emboldened Iran.
US-Israeli ties have suffered "great strains" under Obama, allowing Iran to exploit the divisions as it pursues a nuclear programme that has "never posed a greater danger to our friends, our allies, and to us," Romney said.
Conditions on aid
Romney said he would impose tighter sanctions on Iran if elected, as well as new conditions on aid given to Egypt.
"The president is fond of saying that 'The tide of war is receding,'" he 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."
Romney said: "There is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East and it's not unique to that region."
Al Jazeera's Fisher said Romney's speech touched on themes he had mentioned previously, and was very broad brush, without going into much detail.
"[Romney] said they have got to be closer to Israel, they have to be tougher on Iran, they have got to tie aid to countries like Egypt to make sure that they develop democracy, build civil society, keep a free media," he said.
"He said that our friends should know that they are our friends, and our enemies should know what will happen if they went up against America.
"The problem is that Romney has in the past said things that don't tally with what he said he now. During the speech he said he would like to see a separate independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel.
"Now we know from the video that was released this spring that Romney said he did not ever see that happening. In fact, he said in that video that he believed that Palestinians were not committed to peace."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies