RENO, Nev. – Sensing a new political vulnerability for President Obama, Mitt Romney on Tuesday sought to weaken Obama’s foreign policy credentials by pinning blame for the leaking of national-security secrets squarely on the president and his administration.
"This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation, with explanation and consequence,” Romney said of the leaks in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. “It is not enough to say the matter is being looked into, and leave it at that. When the issue is the political use of highly sensitive national security information, it is unacceptable to say, ‘We’ll report our findings after the election.’”
The former Massachusetts governor drew on remarks by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said that the White House appears to have been the source of some of the leaks. The leaks included highly classified details of the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Feinstein’s office, however, released a statement following Romney’s speech that said she was “disappointed” by Romney’s statements and that she does not believe Obama leaked classified information.
Romney also argued that Obama appointees who answer to Attorney General Eric Holder – a favorite punching bag for Republicans -- should not be allowed to investigate the source of the leaks.
At the same time, he sought to yoke Obama to a set of steep upcoming defense cuts, which were scheduled as part of a bipartisan agreement last summer between the president and Congress to raise the debt ceiling. He said the cuts would impair the nation's ability to fend off threats.
"Don’t bother trying to find a serious military rationale behind any of this, unless that rationale is wishful thinking. Strategy is not driving President Obama’s massive defense cuts," Romney said. "These cuts would only weaken an already stretched VA system and our solemn commitment that every veteran receives care second to none. I will not allow that to happen."
Obama also brought up the defense cuts in his own speech to the VFW on Monday, though he blamed Congress for sacrificing defense spending in order to avoid raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans through the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.
"Instead of making tough choices to reduce the deficit, they'd rather protect tax cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans, even if it risks big cuts in our military. And I've got to tell you, VFW, I disagree,” he said in his speech.
Romney, in an interview with CNBC on Monday, said he would extend the tax cuts. He has advocated his own defense buildup, including an increase in the size of the U.S. Navy and the addition of 100,00 active duty troops, but has not specified how he would pay for either expenditure aside from articulating a broad assumption that his policies would improve the economy and raise revenue.
Much of the VFW speech followed in that fashion as a broad critique of the president’s policies. One of the lone new policy proposals detailed in the speech was a call for Iran to fully suspend any uranium enrichment.
“There is no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons capability. Yet for all the talks and conferences, all of the extensions and assurances, can anyone say we are farther from this danger now than four years ago?” Romney asked, though the sanctions cleared by the president at the end of March were intended to sharply reduce Iranian oil exports.
The Obama campaign, in a tweet during Romney’s speech, argued that the sanctions are “the toughest sanctions in Iran’s history…and they’re working.”
Romney spent just a few minutes of his speech discussing his policy for ending the war in Afghanistan. He offered the same broad overview of how he would prosecute the remainder of the war – by listening to the advice from commanders on the ground.
Even though he has criticized Obama’s announcement that he would transfer security responsibilities to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014 and the decision to withdraw 30,000 surge troops by September, Romney reiterated in his speech that he plans to complete the same transition in that time frame.
His lack of specificity was a source of attack for Obama in his speech, when he told the audience, “When you’re commander in chief, you owe the troops a plan. You owe the country a plan.”
Vice President Joe Biden pursued that same line of attack in a statement issued following Romney's speech. “Today, Governor Romney had an opportunity to fulfill a long-standing promise by laying out his foreign policy vision and agenda. He had a chance to say how he would lead as commander-in-chief. Instead, all we heard from Governor Romney was empty rhetoric and bluster. He reflexively criticizes the President’s policies without offering any alternatives."
Romney foreign policy advisor Rich Williamson, a diplomat in the George W. Bush administration, said on a campaign conference call before the speech that the Obama administration was simply demanding details as a way of distracting from the president’s own “spotty and ineffective” record.
Other policy details offered in a fact sheet provided by the campaign, but not mentioned in Romney’s speech, include a policy to condition the $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance to Egypt on maintenance of the country’s peace agreement with Israel. The fact sheet also says that an additional $250 million in economic assistance, $1 billion in debt cancellation pledges and $1 billion in OPIC loan guarantees will be dependent on good governance and peace in the region.
Romney did not mention the conflict in Syria, the most high-profile foreign policy crisis at the moment, aside from critiquing the Russian government for supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The speech was Romney’s last event in the United States before he departs on a weeklong foreign policy trip that will take him to England, Israel and Poland. His advisors, clearly seeking to challenge Obama on his foreign policy credentials, noted that Romney had made many visits abroad over the course of his life and that many foreign leaders had sought meetings with him.
A Gallup/USA Today Poll released Tuesday found that while most voters rated Romney ahead of Obama on economic issues, 52 percent of those surveyed found the president to be better on foreign policy issues, compared to Romney’s 40 percent.