Last night, Mitt Romney slammed President Obama's handling of the Syrian conflict while offering an alternative plan that basically mirrors the White House's position. Like with Libya, Romney's finding it harder to stake out distinct policy positions than airing vague protests of the president's competence.
In his Tuesday statement, Romney said "we should work with partners to arm the opposition so they can defend themselves," which had some journalists, like The New York Times' Mark Landler, saying Romney was taking a more interventionist approach. That might seem true in light of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney saying the administration is against "further militarization of the situation in Syria" but for practical purposes, the two policies are the same.
A closer look at Romney's carefully-crafted statement shows that Romney is not advocating the U.S. to directly supply arms to Syrian rebels. The GOP candidate calls on the administration to "work with partners" to arm the opposition. If the Romney campaign had read the scoop by The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly on May 15, it would know that this is precisely what the administration is doing. Per DeYoung and Sly:
Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials ...
Material is being stockpiled in Damascus, in Idlib near the Turkish border and in Zabadani on the Lebanese border. Opposition activists who two months ago said the rebels were running out of ammunition said this week that the flow of weapons — most still bought on the black market in neighboring countries or from elements of the Syrian military — has significantly increased after a decision by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other gulf states to provide millions of dollars in funding each month.
For whatever reason, the administration has declined to own up to its role in getting weapons to the Syrian rebels, which clearly contributes to the "militarization" of the conflict. Regardless, it goes to show how little Romney's policy differs from the president's—especially given that Romney declined to go as far as Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham in calling for air strikes. But this has been a familiar problem for Romney.
His attacks on the president's handling of Libya last year, you might remember, were similarly confused. After Obama ordered a no-fly zone in the conflict, Romney said "I support military action in Libya. I support our troops there and the mission that they’ve been given.” But just because his policy matched up with the president's, didn't mean he supported his leadership on the issue. He said Obama ruled out putting ground forces in Libya because "that's something he's doing for political purposes back home. I can only speculate, but that he wants to make sure that his base here understands the limited role he plans on playing." Oddly, Romney was not calling for troops on the ground either. Later on, he celebrated the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in a statement but later criticized the White House's handling of it as naive. "As the mission went on, however, it became clear that President Obama had no idea about his intentions in Libya," explained Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom to ABC News' Jake Tapper. "The fall from power and subsequent death of Qaddafi brings to end a brutal chapter in Libya’s history—but that does not validate the president’s approach to Libya. The credit goes to the people of Libya." If the U.S. succeeds in helping ouster Assad, who will Romney credit?