Once again, unexpected and frightening events abroad have planted themselves squarely in the middle of a presidential race at home - and Mitt Romney on Wednesday sought to capitalize politically with a searing slam on President Barack Obama.
Romney ripped the White House for a since-disavowed statement from the U.S. embassy in Egypt that came on the day that mobs attacked the American embassy in Cairo. The GOP nominee said the embassy's statement was "akin to apology" and he called it "disgraceful to apologize for American values."
"It's their administration," Romney said at a press conference on the campaign trail in Florida. "Their administration spoke. The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth, but also the words from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department. They clearly sent mixed messages to the world. And the statement that came from the administration--and the embassy is the administration--the statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology. And I think it was a severe miscalculation."
Romney's broadside came after angry mobs attacked U.S. diplomatic buildings in Cairo and Benghazi, Libya, on Tuesday, 11 years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, igniting a war of words between the campaigns of Obama and Romney and sparking reaction across the political spectrum. In Libya, four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to that country, died in the attacks, according to the Associated Press, while in Egypt, angry protesters scaled the walls of the embassy and desecrated the American flag, replacing it with an Islamic banner.
Obama, speaking from the Rose Garden Wednesday morning, steered clear of Romney and the political flap, instead offering condolences to the families and friends of those who died in Libya, and pledging that justice would be done.
The violence came in the wake of a little-known video, produced in the U.S., that was considered inflammatory in parts of the Muslim world, and the protests were possibly connected to that film.
"I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens," said Obama in a statement released Wednesday morning. "While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants."
The statement also noted that Obama has called for increased security "at our diplomatic posts across the globe." Fox News reported Wednesday morning that about 50 members of a Marine fast team were expected to be sent to Benghazi to secure the consulate.
"The President was notified last night that Ambassador Stevens was unaccounted for and then notified again this morning about his tragic death," a White House official said Wednesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also weighed in, saying at a press conference Wednesday morning, "American commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: there is no justification for this. None."
"Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith. As long as there are those who would take innocent life in the name of God, the world will never know true and lasting peace. [It is] especially difficult that this happened on Sept. 11, an anniversary that means a great deal to all Americans. Every year, that day is a reminder that our work is not yet finished. The job of putting an end to violent extremism and building a safe, stable world continues."
It was a statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Tuesday morning that threatened to cause a massive political headache for the White House, on top of the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel. The American embassy issued a statement about the offending video - which critics later characterized as an apology - condemning "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."
Romney said in a statement Tuesday night: "It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."
POLITICO reported late Tuesday that, according to an administration official, "The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government."
"Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet," according to another statement from Clinton on Tuesday. "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
Ben LaBolt, the national press secretary at Obama for America, fired back at Romney early Wednesday morning, saying: "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."
By that point, the events had already taken a political turn as conservatives jumped into the fray to try to turn the events against Obama.
"I think it's a horrific response that we're apologizing," Florida Rep. Allen West said Tuesday on Fox News's "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren.""We are accepting the blame for this, which means you're going to fuel more of this response."
West, a conservative firebrand, said that the embassy's apology sets a dangerous precedent.
"If we are going to start eschewing our freedom of speech rights to apologize...Greta, you are only going to get even more of this," he said. "This is rewarding bad behavior. And I think you are going to see this dovetail into other countries."
Sarah Palin added her voice online. "In response to this, the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued a statement that was so outrageous many of us thought it must be a satire," she wrote on her Facebook page. "The embassy actually apologized to the violent mob attacking us, and it even went so far as to chastise those who use free speech to 'hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.'"
She added, "These countries represent his much touted 'Arab Spring.' How's that Arab Spring working out for us now? Have we received an apology yet from our "friends" in the Muslim Brotherhood for the assault on our embassy? It's about time our president stood up for America and condemned these Islamic extremists."
"We already know that President Obama likes to 'speak softly' to our enemies. If he doesn't have a 'big stick' to carry, maybe it's time for him to grow one."
Sen. James Inhofe, a conservative from Oklahoma who is often deeply critical of the Obama administration, offered a statement in keeping with that reputation Wednesday morning.
"Sadly, America has suffered as a result of President Obama's failure to lead and his failed foreign policy of appeasement and apology," he said. "The world must know beyond doubt that America will not allow these types of attacks on our people. Obama's failed leadership is in direct contrast with the Ambassador [Stevens'] brave leadership and effort to protect Americans at the consulate."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in contrast, offered a politically neutral take on the developments in the Middle East.
"On my visit to Libya and the region earlier this year, I met with some of the courageous foreign service officers representing our nation in the Middle East, despite enormous risk to their own safety," she said in a statement. "As we mourn the loss of the Americans in Benghazi, we pay tribute to all of the men and women standing their post abroad on behalf of our values and our partnerships across the globe."
Meanwhile, Republican House Speaker John Boehner also struck a less partisan note in a statement Wednesday.
"We mourn for the families of our countrymen in Benghazi, and condemn this horrific attack," he said. "Eleven years after September 11, this is a jolting reminder that freedom remains under siege by forces around the globe who relish violence over free expression, and terror over democracy -- and that America and free people everywhere must remain vigilant in defense of our liberties."
Other Republican leaders added comments throughout the morning, with some offering a combative take on the incidents but laying off criticizing Obama, as Romney had done.
"Eleven years after September 11, it is clear that Islamic extremist terrorism still poses a tremendous threat to the Middle East, to the United States, and to the international community," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a statement. "These attacks will not deter America from continuing to promote peace, democracy, individual and religious freedom and an unwavering respect for human life throughout the region and the world."
"The Libyan and Egyptian people should understand that the U.S. shares their commitment to building more hopeful and prosperous nations," offered Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. "However, if left unchecked, violent attacks like these against our embassies and diplomats will lead Libya and Egypt down a dark path and rob them of their hopes of a more prosperous and democratic future. The broader publics in Libya and Egypt should condemn the violence and distance themselves from the unruly and intolerant elements of their society that threaten the security and future of their nations."
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