The attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya became a flashpoint in the American presidential race, as Republican nominee Mitt Romney drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans for chastising President Barack Obama and his administration on their response.
The Republican presidential nominee told reporters at a Jacksonville, Florida, news conference today that Obama’s administration set a “terrible course” when the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued a statement Romney called “akin to apology” to Egyptian protesters before the death of U.S. envoy to Libya J. Christopher Stevens.
Those comments came after Romney said in a statement issued late last night that the Obama administration’s “first response” had been to “sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” calling it “disgraceful.”
Romney’s reaction referred to a statement by the U.S. embassy in Cairo that was intended to ease tensions over an anti-Muslim film and was released hours before attacks erupted in Egypt and in Libya. The Republican’s response sparked rebukes from Democrats and critical comments from members of his own party.
Romney “will find out that first reports from the battlefield are always incorrect,” said Richard Armitage, the former deputy Secretary of State under Republican President George W. Bush. “This should be his mantra, so he can speak in a deliberate manner, and not have to repent at his leisure later.”
Obama made a similar point in a television interview, saying Romney “seems to have a tendency to shoot first, aim later,” and calling the episode a “broader lesson” about being commander-in-chief.
“As president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that -- that, you know, it’s important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts, and that you’ve thought through the ramifications before you make them,” Obama told CBS News today in an interview to be broadcast in its entirety Sept. 16 on the program “60 Minutes.”
The embassy in Cairo initially posted a statement early yesterday morning on the social networking site Twitter saying, “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy.” About an hour later, it released a statement saying it condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims -- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
An administration official said the embassy statement went out about noon Cairo time, and that it hadn’t been coordinated with officials in Washington, where it was about 6 a.m.
Romney’s allies rallied to his defense, saying he had rightly pointed out key weaknesses in Obama’s foreign policy, and their ramifications for U.S. security.
“Romney is right to bring home the weakness of the Obama administration, exemplified in the disgraceful statement issued” by the Egyptian embassy, wrote Weekly Standard columnist Bill Kristol in a piece excerpted for inclusion in a compendium of praise for the Republican nominee’s response circulated by Romney’s campaign.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who heads the Homeland Security Committee, questioned the timing of Romney’s statement, not its substance.
“I probably would have waited 12 or 24 hours” because “a quick statement,” if “something tragic does happen,” may “be perceived as being political,” King said. Still, King said he agreed with “the overall point he was making,” adding that “we have to be more aggressive in the Middle East.”
The embassy’s statement “was reflective of the weak, meandering Middle East policy of the Obama administration,” King said. “We should not be in any way using a statement to try to buy off radicals.”
Romney’s campaign sought to contain potential damage from a fast-developing story that appeared to catch the candidate -- a former governor of Massachusetts who has no national security experience -- flat-footed, shifting attention away from his signature issue of jobs and the economy.
The campaign initially appeared to make an effort to avoid criticizing Obama’s team over the issue on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, issuing a critical statement just after 11 p.m. last night that was embargoed until after midnight on Sept. 12. An aide quickly lifted the embargo, and Romney ratcheted up his criticism today.
“It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values,” Romney told reporters at a hastily arranged press conference held inside his Jacksonville campaign headquarters as supporters who’d gathered for a previously scheduled event looked on through windows. “Instead, when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation.”
Romney’s second round of remarks followed the confirmation that Stevens and three others were killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi amid protests in Libya and neighboring Egypt over a film about the Prophet Muhammad viewed as blasphemous by Muslims.
Romney, who said he mourned the loss of American life and was praying for the victims’ families, said the statement by the U.S. embassy in Cairo had been distributed “after their grounds had been breached.” A review of the statement’s release shows it was posted hours before the embassy walls were compromised.
“The embassy is the administration,” Romney said. “The statement that came from the administration was a statement that was akin to apology.”
In talking points his campaign distributed this morning to Republican surrogates, Romney’s campaign instructed allies to dismiss the question, “Did Governor Romney ‘jump the gun’ last night in releasing his statement?”
“No,” the talking points said, offering a line similar to one Romney used at his news conference. “It is never too soon to stand up for American values and interests.”
The consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi came under rocket attack, Libya’s deputy interior minister, Wanis El-Sharif, said by telephone today.
In Cairo, Egypt’s capital, Islamist demonstrators scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy, ripped down a U.S. flag and chanted: “Obama, we are here to sacrifice for Osama,” a reference to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. raid last year in Pakistan.
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Obama’s re-election campaign, criticized Romney’s statement from last night.
“We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack.” LaBolt said early today in an e-mailed statement.
Obama today condemned “in the strongest terms” the attack in Libya and ordered tighter security at U.S. diplomatic post across the world.
The president said the U.S. rejects “all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence. None.”
He vowed the U.S. will work with the Libyan government to track down those responsible for the attack. “Justice will be done,” he said in the White House Rose Garden with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his side.