Libya attacks steer presidential campaign to foreign policy

Associated Press
Protesters destroy an American flag pulled down from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. Egyptian protesters, largely ultra conservative Islamists, have climbed the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, went into the courtyard and brought down the flag, replacing it with a black flag with Islamic inscription, in protest of a film deemed offensive of Islam. (AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid)

By Ben Feller and Nedra Pickler
Associated Press

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Republican Mitt Romney on Tuesday assailed President Barack Obama anew over his administration’s handling of foreign attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions, saying the president’s team sent “mixed signals to the world” in the face of violence.

Obama, who earlier condemned “the outrageous attack” that killed U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three American members of his staff, planned a statement in the Rose Garden shortly after Romney defended his response to the violence before knowing the diplomats were dead.

Romney jumped to criticize Obama Tuesday night as the attacks were being waged on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, saying the administration’s early response seemed to sympathize with the attackers who were protesting an obscure film by a California filmmaker that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Romney was responding to a statement issued by the embassy in Cairo that condemned “efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” Romney said in his appearance Wednesday that the statement “was akin to an apology” for American values while its grounds were under attack.

Romney originally planned to address supporters in his Jacksonville, Fla., campaign headquarters but his staff scrambled to change the set-up to a more somber appearance to reflect the grim news. The supporters were ushered from the room and four flags were set up behind the podium from which Romney read a brief statement mentioning Egypt in passing, using the statement from Cairo as evidence that Obama is a weak leader. He then invited questions from reporters, who asked if it was an appropriate tone to take given the deaths revealed later. Romney stood firm.

“The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth, but also for the words that come from his ambassadors , from his administration, form his embassies, from his state department,” Romney said. “They clearly sent mixed messages to the world. 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 was a severe miscalculation.”

Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt responded Tuesday night that the campaign was “shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Gov. Romney would choose to launch a political attack.” The president planned to make a statement Wednesday morning in a White House Rose Garden appearance with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The attacks pivoted the election to foreign policy, an area where Obama has a lead in polling even though Republicans traditionally have an edge.

The question has been whether a crisis in Iran or Syria could create a campaign issue for Obama, but instead the attacks sparked by the film has brought an unexpected crisis. Romney jumped on the development to argue Obama isn’t leading on foreign policy. It’s unclear whether the ambassador’s death will catch the attention of voters rather than the war in Afghanistan or Obama’s leadership in the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Obama was more cautious in responding to the attacks as the situation evolved. The White House says Obama was informed of the Libya attacks Tuesday afternoon during his weekly meeting with Pentagon leaders and told later in the evening that Stevens was unaccounted for. Obama learned of the ambassador’s death Wednesday morning, the White House said.

The situation threatened to get worse, with U.S. embassies in the Libyan border nations of Algeria and Tunisia warning Americans to avoid crowded places where even peaceful protests planned for Wednesday could turn violent.

On Capitol Hill, House and Senate Republicans mostly steered clear of the political criticism that Romney leveled at Obama over foreign policy, focusing on the lives lost in the Egyptian and Libyan attacks and imploring the two governments to condemn the incidents and protect American diplomatic missions.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Americans “will stand united in our response.” “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,” he said.