CHARLESTON, S.C.—Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Friday the next president would face complex foreign policy decisions but offered few details on his plan for one of the nation's most protracted international entanglements -- the decade-old Afghanistan war.
Delivering his first major foreign policy address on the 10th anniversary of the conflict, the former Massachusetts governor said little about what he would do specifically about Afghanistan, where nearly 100,000 American troops are stationed today.
"I will order a full review of our transition to the Afghan military to secure that nation's sovereignty from the tyranny of the Taliban," Romney said near the end of his remarks, listing the Afghan war among eight priorities for his first 100 days in office. "The force level necessary to secure our gains and complete our mission successfully is a decision I will make free from politics."
The comment drew applause from the cadets and supporters who gathered at The Citadel, South Carolina's military college. But Afghanistan was almost an afterthought in Romney's speech, in which he made the case for a stronger military that would allow the United States to lead the world and help deter further violence.
He mentioned the name of the country three times in a speech that exceeded 2,800 words.
When pressed for details on Afghanistan during a morning briefing, a Romney foreign policy adviser declined to outline a Romney plan for Afghanistan and noted that the governor recognizes the difficulty of what America faces there.
On other issues, Romney said he would boost the number of Navy ships and pour more money into defense, outlining proposals to strengthen the military while rejecting multilateral institutions like the United Nations when necessary.
He also condemned the isolationist policies supported by some tea party activists.
"This is America's moment. We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America's moment has passed. That is utter nonsense," he added.
Romney's first foreign policy speech as a candidate amounted to a show of force of sorts as he tries to position himself as the clear GOP frontrunner in the White House race. Some Republicans remain reluctant to support him but Romney has resumed his place atop national polling following Texas Gov. Rick Perry's recent stumbles and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's decision not to run.
The sometimes hawkish policies Romney outlined Friday may draw criticism from the libertarian wing of his party but are designed to confront what may be the former businessman's most glaring weakness. While he served as a Mormon missionary in France more than four decades ago, he has only limited foreign policy experience. As he says in nearly every campaign stop, he has spent most of his life in the business world.
Aides insist this is an asset that allows for a thoughtful, business-like approach in shaping a proactive and aggressive foreign policy. To that end, he took a forceful tone in his remarks before 400 people gathered at The Citadel's Mark Clark Hall, a three-story building named for the U.S. general who liberated Rome in World War II.
"This century must be an American century. In an American century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world," Romney said. "God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will."
The policies, which are in some ways a return to those of the Bush administration, include specifics on various fronts aside from Afghanistan.
He warned that "powerful, determined forces" threaten the nation's freedom, including Islamic fundamentalism and "anti-American visions of regimes in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba--two of which are seeking nuclear weapons."
And he warned Friday -- as he had the day before -- against "massive defense cuts" implemented by the Obama administration.
In fact, Obama has not significantly reduced defense spending during his administration, although he has slowed the projected rate of increase. In April, he instructed the Pentagon to find an additional $400 billion in reductions over 12 years.
The exact cost of Romney's plans is unclear, although it may be high.
For example, he is calling for the Navy to increase the number of ships constructed each year from nine to 15. He argues that savings on unnecessary spending in other areas would partially offset the investment.
The Citadel speech comes three days before his rival Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China, delivers a foreign policy address of his own. The location of the speech, in the early voting state of South Carolina, is of course no coincidence.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney dismissed Romney's criticism of Obama's foreign policy, and pointed to comments Thursday from House Speaker John Boehner, who said he supported Obama's handing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as terrorism.
Carney said Obama's "record on foreign policy and national security policy speaks for itself. We are stronger. We are safer."
Peoples reported from New Hampshire. With reports from AP National Security Writer Robert Burns and White House Reporter Julie Pace in Washington, D.C.