By Salvador Rizzo

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for an aggressive expansion of the United States' intelligence operations and global military footprint on Monday, envisioning the country as a peacekeeping force containing the rising threat of China, Iran, Russia and Syria.

On a swing through New Hampshire, Christie staked out the most hawkish position of all the would-be candidates for the presidency so far, hammering everyone from President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin, from "civil rights extremists" concerned about electronic surveillance to Hollywood filmmakers who he said were demonizing the people keeping the country safe.

"We became the leader of the free world because we also chose to become the arsenal of democracy," Christie said in his first extended remarks on world affairs.

At each event, Christie fired off new criticisms and detailed new policy positions. During a speech in Portsmouth, Christie rebuked Obama's handling of global affairs as "an intellectual and strategic mess" and a "foreign policy based on polls" that has left Israel, a U.S. ally in the Middle East, vulnerable to nuclear attacks down the line from Iran and other hostile nations.

At a town hall in Hudson, he hammered former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading contender for the Democratic nomination, for her response to the attacks at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, and for using a private email server during her time at the State Department.

And later, in an interview with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, he criticized Clinton for advocating a pathway to citizenship for people living in the country illegally _ disowning similar comments he had made during his first year as governor.

"I think that, quite frankly, what Hillary Clinton's doing right now is pandering," Christie said on Fox. Asked why he had changed his position, after supporting a pathway to citizenship in 2010, Christie said he had since learned more about the issue.

Christie, who is courting primary voters on frequent trips outside New Jersey and preparing for an expected presidential run, also took aim at Putin, Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Ayatollah in Iran, the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon, the North Korean government, an increasingly militarized China.

Maintaining a large military and naval presence was key to keeping them all in check, Christie said. The governor did not call for outright increases in the number of enlisted personnel; he said Army and Marine forces should not drop to "pre-9/11 levels," as planned. Cutbacks planned for the number of Air Force aircraft and Navy vessels should be reversed, he said.

"The world we live in today is chaotic and dangerous not because America has been too tough but because America has been too weak," Christie said. "If you want to be part of the civilized world, you have to act in a civilized manner."

In the ongoing debate over the proper balance between privacy and security, Christie came out strongly in support of the U.S. government's sweeping dragnet for electronic data. Christie pushed back on critics of the National Security Agency and privacy rights advocates who say Americans' constitutional rights are being infringed on a mass scale.

In doing so, Christie set himself starkly apart from what he called "civil rights extremists" and lawmakers from both parties in Congress who are trying to disband a controversial NSA program that sweeps up all Americans' cellphone metadata, including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a declared presidential candidate and likely opponent for the Republican nomination.

The metadata include the length of all phone calls, as well as who made and received them, but the NSA does not gather recordings of those calls. A federal appeals court ruled this month that the program, which was exposed by the whistle blower Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, was illegal.

A former U.S. attorney, Christie said he used the USA Patriot Act to win a conviction in the first terrorism case after 9/11. An Indian-born man from the United Kingdom, Hemant Lakhani, was convicted for attempting to sell an anti-aircraft missile to what he thought was a terrorist group. In reality, they were undercover agents, Christie said.

The NSA collects metadata under a section of the Patriot Act that is up for renewal in Congress. Congress should renew the act as is, Christie said, and focus on finding new technological tools that would help intelligence agencies interpret the mountains of data they collect.

"All these fears are exaggerated and ridiculous," Christie said, adding later: "The founders made sure that the first obligation of the American government was to protect the lives of the American people. You can't enjoy your civil liberties if you're in a coffin."

Paul told The Record that protecting the constitutional right to privacy, established under the Fourth Amendment, should be a bigger priority. "I think the Bill of Rights is a pretty important part of our Constitution and our heritage," Paul said. "Defending the Fourth Amendment, I would hardly call that ridiculous."

Down in the polls, shadowed by the ongoing court case in the George Washington Bridge scandal, and facing tough budget problems back home, the foreign policy tour gave Christie a chance to change the conversation and set himself apart from Republican hopefuls such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who have stumbled answering questions about the Iraq war in recent days.

He described a world with "fires in Iraq, fires in Libya, fires in Syria."

"And in the Holy Land, Israeli citizens live their lives in the shadow of the Iranian menace while our diplomats toast the promises of the Ayatollah," he continued.

Today, he said, "for the first time since World War II, Russian troops march across the lands of a sovereign European state," a reference to the conflict in Ukraine. Christie called for "travel bans and asset freezes" for Putin, his inner circle _ and the entire Russian parliament.

(Staff writers Herb Jackson and Melissa Hayes contributed to this article.)

(c)2015 The Record