The deadly U.S. embassy attacks gripped the presidential campaign Wednesday when Republican Mitt Romney claimed that the president’s administration had been “sympathizing” with the attackers and apologizing “for American values.”
President Barack Obama’s supporters were quick to point out that Obama and the administration made no apologies or expressions of sympathy, and they accused Romney of politicizing a tragedy.
“I don’t think we ever hesitate when we see something which is a violation of our principles,” Romney said Wednesday in Jacksonville, echoing comments made the previous night when he criticized Obama’s handling of the situation.
The political fallout began hours after violent crowds stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three members of his diplomatic staff were killed.
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“It’s especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city he helped to save,” Obama said on Wednesday in the Rose Garden, declining to take questions from reporters or to criticize Romney.
Later in the day, Obama hit back.
“Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” Obama told CBS. “And as president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that.”
The website Buzzfeed quoted numerous Republican foreign-policy experts, all of whom spoke anonymously, expressing displeasure with Romney for the timing and tenor of his statements less than a day after the attacks.
Publicly, conservatives and Romney’s campaign criticized the White House for not quickly condemning the attacks or for preparing the embassy and consulate for the attacks that occurred on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The questions about what U.S. intelligence officials knew or should have known will likely dog Obama through the campaign.
Conservatives said that the attacks and Obama’s response recalled President Jimmy Carter’s response to the 1979 storming of the U.S. embassy in Iran. Earlier that same year, on Feb. 14, Adolph “Spike” Dubs was killed in Afghanistan, the last ambassador to hold that distinction until Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and intelligence committee member, said he suspects this attack was masterminded by al-Qaida in “revenge” for the recent killing by the United States of one of its leaders in Libya.
Asked how a small band of terrorists could trash a consulate and kill a U.S. ambassador, Nelson told FOX News that there needs to be an investigation and more security.
“Clearly, the security has to be increased,” Nelson said.
Both Romney and Obama strongly condemned the latest attacks and expressed sorrow for the deaths of Americans.
The violence was apparently sparked by anti-Muslim videos — one of them reportedly linked to a controversial Florida pastor. But by Wednesday afternoon, officials began to believe that the attacks had been planned and coordinated.
The Cairo embassy, not knowing this at the time, issued a written statement about the Islamic-bashing video that condemned “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
The U.S. embassy in Cairo was stormed by a mob that desecrated an American flag.
Obama’s administration was slow to issue a condemnation, but later disavowed the embassy statement. Romney said any statements from the embassy reflect on Obama’s leadership and administration.
“That reflects the mixed signals that they’re sending to the world,” Romney said Wednesday during a stop in Jacksonville.
“It’s also important for me — just as it was for the White House, last night by the way — to say that the statements were inappropriate,” Romney said, “and in my view a disgraceful statement on the part of our administration to apologize for American values.”
The statement from the embassy, however, said nothing about apologizing for “American values.” It condemned the anti-Muslim film, not the freedom or rights of those who made it.
While the protests mounted outside, someone manning the Twitter account of the Cairo embassy sent out a message: “This morning’s condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.”
Romney said that showed “the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt.” He said the administration shouldn’t have issued the tweet and should have condemned the protests at the embassy.
“The first response by the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation,” Romney said. “And apology for America’s values is never the right course.
But, the day before, the embassy rejected that very claim, promulgated by Republicans on the Internet, that the U.S. was apologizing for anything.
“We did not apologize to anyone because we did nothing— US Embassy Cairo,” it tweeted.
The troubles in Cairo and Libya stand in stark contrast to the hope inspired by the so-called Arab Spring. Romney warned that the U.S. needs to ensure there’s not “an Arab winter.”
By putting foreign policy at the center of the presidential debate on Wednesday, Romney seemed to reverse course from a campaign that has described foreign policy as “a distraction” from concentrating on the economy.
The attacks have allowed Romney a fresh way to attack Obama, whose party repeatedly bragged about his terrorist-fighting abilities after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
After he won the presidency, Obama made his first Middle East trip to Cairo, which later shrugged off a dictatorship. Since then, though, it has begun to slip into the grip of Islamic fundamentalism.
Libya, which also rid itself of a dictatorship during Obama’s term, was viewed as a foreign-policy success. But the attacks underscored that country’s instability.
Obama pledged to find the attackers.
“Make no mistake: Justice will be done,” Obama said. “The lives these Americans led stand in stark contrast to those of their attackers. These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity. They should give every American great pride in the country that they served.”