Philadelphia (CNN) - Mitt Romney bit his tongue and played it safe. He waited until hours after the president’s speech from Afghanistan to release a statement on what was undoubtedly a turning point in the U.S. war against al Qaeda.
“I am pleased that President Obama has returned to Afghanistan. Our troops and the American people deserve to hear from our President about what is at stake in this war,” Romney said in the statement released late Tuesday night.
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Romney made no mention of the new security agreement that was signed by the president and Afghan leader Hamid Karzai exactly one year after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
In his statement, Romney simply warned of the consequences of failure in Afghanistan.
“It would be a tragedy for Afghanistan and a strategic setback for America if the Taliban returned to power and once again created a sanctuary for terrorists. We tolerated such a sanctuary until we lost thousands on September 11, 2001,” Romney said.
Romney’s restraint throughout the day showed a different side of the Republican contender. Gone were his usual pointed complaints about the president’s foreign policy. By appearances, he seemed to be letting the president have his moment.
At a brief news conference outside a New York City fire station, Romney was relatively gentle in his criticism of the president’s dramatic use of Monday’s White House news conference to draw a contrast with his expected general election rival.
"I'd just recommend that everybody take a look at people's previous statements in terms of whether they thought it was appropriate to go into Pakistan and take out bin Laden,” the president said.
It was a clear reference to statements Romney made in 2007 when he questioned whether it was worth moving “heaven and earth” to take down the terrorist leader. The former Massachusetts governor later said he would do everything to bring bin Laden to justice.
"I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together, which was the elimination of Osama bin Laden,” Romney said at the New York news conference.
Romney said his comments in 2007 were intended to demonstrate prudence on the world stage.
“I would have made the same decision the president made,. which was to remove him," Romney told reporters.
He even gave credit where he felt it was due. “You know I think it’s totally appropriate for the president to express to the American people the view that he has… that he had an important role in taking out Osama bin Laden,” Romney added.
Romney has not always been this charitable. Last December in a speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition, Romney delivered a blistering attack on the president’s foreign policy.
“Internationally, President Obama has adopted an appeasement strategy. Appeasement betrays a lack of faith in America, in American strength, and in America's future,” Romney said in the December speech.
The charge that Mr. Obama has shown weakness on the world stage dates back to the speech Romney used to kick off his 2012 presidential campaign. Romney said the president “traveled around the globe to apologize for America.” The fact-checking web site, PolitiFact, later rated Romney’s claim as “pants on fire.”
Romney has struck a noticeably more cautious public posture ever since the Obama re-election campaign released its controversial ad that questioned the Republican contender’s willingness to take out bin Laden.
For days, Romney and his campaign faced an image battle they could not win. As the president was on his way to Afghanistan, Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani were delivering pizzas to firefighters.
Romney did not join the few Republicans in Congress who questioned the timing of the president’s trip.
“The White House tells us it is a coincidence that POTUS is in Afghanistan on anniversary of OBL death,” tweeted Iowa Republican congressman Steve King. In his tweet, King referred to Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, a pioneer in pro-football end zone celebrations.
After his brief appearance with Giuliani, Romney attended two private fundraisers in the Philadelphia suburbs where he would stay away from the cameras for the remainder of the day.
The day’s political challenges were a reminder of the uphill battle Romney faces in removing a “war-time president.”
“It's the power of incumbency–accept it. Plus, election is still about the economy,” former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted earlier in the day.