* Republican sets the stage for second election debate
* Calls for more assertive use of U.S. influence
* Says would to work to ensure Syrian rebels get weapons
* Obama campaign mocks Republican's 'chest-pounding rhetoric'
By Steve Holland
LEXINGTON, Va., Oct 8 (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered a sweeping critique on Monday of President Barack Obama's handling of threats in the Middle East, saying Obama's lack of leadership had made the volatile region more dangerous.
In what his campaign called a major foreign policy address, Romney called for a more assertive use of American influence in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Romney, speaking before the white-uniformed cadets at Virginia Military Institute, questioned Obama's handling of the episode in Libya last month in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed after the U.S. consulate in Benghazi came under militant attack.
The former Massachusetts governor also accused Obama of failing to use U.S. diplomacy to shape events in Iran, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Russia and elsewhere.
"The president is fond of saying that, 'The tide of war is receding,'" Romney 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's speech was short on specifics, but in broad terms he laid out his national security priorities before the second of his three debates with Obama, which will be at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on Oct. 16 and will include discussion of foreign policy.
Romney's aim on Monday was to portray himself as having the presidential stature needed for the world stage. He had a similar goal during a trip overseas in July, but that was marred by a series of missteps, including his inadvertent insult of the organizers of the London Olympics.
In calling for a more forceful foreign policy, Romney indicated that he would not rush into armed conflict.
But he accused Obama of a hasty troop withdrawal from Iraq, saying hard-fought gains there are being eroded by rising violence and a resurgent al Qaeda. Obama considers his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq the fulfillment of a 2008 campaign promise, sought by Americans weary of war.
Romney also said he might not be so quick to pull troops out of the unpopular war in Afghanistan. Obama has pledged to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 as part of NATO's plan to hand over security responsibility to Afghan forces.
Romney said he would pursue a transition to Afghan security forces by that time but would evaluate conditions there before making a final decision to pull out.
Obama was right to order the mission that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden last year, Romney said, but he charged that other elements of the president's strategy for the region were weak or ill-advised. Romney pointed to the extensive U.S. reliance on attacks by drone aircraft as "no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East."
Romney, who accused Obama of pursuing a strategy of "passivity" rather than partnership with U.S. allies, is running just behind or even with his Democratic rival in most opinion polls, which have gotten closer since Romney did well in their first debate last week.
Reuters/Ipsos tracking polls indicate that more Americans favor Obama on foreign policy issues.
The latest data, collected through Sunday, indicate that 40 percent of likely voters believe Obama has a better plan for combating terrorism, compared with 31.5 percent for Romney. In dealing with Iran, 35.4 percent of likely voters favored Obama; 30.9 percent backed Romney.
Obama's campaign portrayed Romney's speech as the latest in a series of failed attempts by the Republican to look like a statesman on foreign policy.
Obama aides cast Romney as unfit to be commander-in-chief because of his gaffe-filled overseas trip in July and his much-criticized immediate reaction to the Libyan attack. Romney blasted Obama's actions before it was clear that Stevens had been killed in Benghazi and was accused of injecting politics into a national tragedy.
"This is somebody who leads with chest-pounding rhetoric," Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said of Romney. "He has been clumsy in his handling of foreign policy."
Romney promised that if elected on Nov. 6, he would vigorously pursue those responsible for the Libyan attack, as Obama has vowed to do.
During his speech, Romney pledged to tighten sanctions on Iran and deploy warships in the region to press Tehran to give up a nuclear program the West believes is aimed at producing atomic bombs.
Obama's campaign, and many foreign policy analysts, have said the sanctions on Iran have crippled Iran's economy. The sanctions include a European Union oil embargo and U.S. Treasury restrictions on oil-related transactions with the country's central bank. Along with Iran's own economic mismanagement, they are believed to be behind a one-third drop in the value of the Iranian currency in the last 10 days.
Romney also said he would increase military assistance and coordination with Israel, which has threatened a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Romney pledged that his administration would work to find elements of the Syrian opposition who share U.S. values and ensure they obtain weapons needed to defeat President Bashir al-Assad's forces. Syrian rebels have accused the United States and Western allies of sitting on the sidelines of the conflict.
"Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them," Romney said. "We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran - rather than sitting on the sidelines."
Psaki, the Obama campaign spokeswoman, noted that Romney's foreign policy team includes several former advisers to George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor and the architect of the unpopular war in Iraq.
Romney has "surrounded himself with a number of people who were advisers to past President Bush, people who have used saber-rattling rhetoric when it comes to Syria and Iran," Psaki said. "That's something ... we think the American people should take a look at."