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U.S. Embassy Attacks In North Africa Reverberate On White House Campaign

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
September 12, 2012

The death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans at the hands of extremists there became the latest fodder in the 2012 presidential race early Wednesday.

Republican Mitt Romney used the incident to continue his campaign’s attacks on President Obama’s approach to foreign policy; the current White House occupant avoided any overt politics, instead focusing on dealing with the emergency.

But while the president, in a statement to reporters in the White House Rose Garden, didn’t engage Romney’s criticisms of his foreign policy style, the Obama campaign showed no such reluctance. The exchange between the campaigns suggested that foreign policy could loom larger as an issue in a White House race that has largely been dominated by the domestic economy.

Presidential politics intruded on the tragedy Tuesday evening in the U.S. before it became public knowledge that Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi as a result of riots.

The U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, had come under attack, as had the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, from outraged mobs ostensibly reacting to an amateur, low-budget anti-Muslim movie that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad unfavorably.

The U.S. embassy in Cairo’s brief statement early Tuesday contained the following sentence:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

Romney’s campaign apparently saw an opportunity to construe that statement as an apology. A key line of attack for Romney is the charge that Obama has shown weakness by allegedly apologizing for past U.S. behavior, an accusation fact checkers have called groundless. Indeed, Romney’s campaign manifesto is titled “No Apology: Believe In America.”

While Romney and Obama’s campaigns avoided harsh political attacks on Tuesday, the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, the Republican presidential nominee’s campaign had a statement ready to go before midnight that criticized the Obama administration for the Cairo embassy’s statement. It accused the administration of siding with the attackers.

This caused the Obama campaign to accuse Romney of playing politics amid deadly violence aimed at Americans and a still volatile situation.

Romney pressed ahead with his criticism of Obama when he appeared briefly before reporters Wednesday to make a statement and answer some questions.

In response to a reporter’s question, Romney said:

ROMNEY: “The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached. Protesters were inside the grounds. They reiterated that statement after the breach. I think it’s a terrible course to — for America to stand in apology for our values. That instead when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

Reminded by a reporter that the White House said Tuesday evening that the embassy statement wasn’t the president’s official position, Romney said:

ROMNEY: “It’s their administration — their administration spoke. The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth but also from the words that come from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department. They clearly — they clearly sent mixed messages to the world. And — and the statement that came from the administration — and the embassy is the administration — the statement that came from the administration was a — was a statement which is akin to apology and I think was a — a — a severe miscalculation.”

Romney’s comments came in the context of not only a presidential campaign that has been dominated by the U.S. economy, but one in which polls show Obama enjoying an advantage with voters on national security and foreign policy.

Obama has been helped by his successful order to kill Osama bin Laden and what, until Tuesday, had seemed a success in Libya, the toppling of strongman Moammar Gahdafi.

It also comes against the backdrop of foreign policy and national security gaffes by Romney. He offended the British with doubtful comments about the London Olympics and his speech at the Republican National Convention was the first by a GOP nomnee since 1952 to not mention American troops engaged in conflict abroad.

Speaking at the White House minutes after Romney spoke, Obama stuck to the presidential script, speaking of the sad loss of the diplomats, condemning the violence and underscoring support for the Libyan government:

“The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack. We’re working with the government of Libya to secure our diplomats. I’ve also directed my administration to increase our security at diplomatic posts around the world. And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.”

“As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.”

“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”

But while the president studiously avoided engaging Romney’s criticisms, his campaign was less reticent. Shortly after midnight, in its response to the Romney campaign’s statement, Ben LaBolt, the Obama campaign spokesman said:

“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.”

That statement was echoed by the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry:

“This is one of those moments when Americans must unite as Americans. It is exactly the wrong time to throw political punches. It is a time to restore calm and proceed wisely.”

Tellingly, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, along with some other Republican senators, avoided criticizing Obama, seemingly obeying the old Washington rule that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Said McConnell:

“Among the things we can all agree on in Washington is that attacks on the U.S. and its representatives will be met with resolve, and that America’s presence and defense of our national interests across the globe will not be deterred by the acts of violent extremists.”

[Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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