WASHINGTON — The violent attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya and embassy in Egypt quickly became the focus of the U.S. presidential election campaign Wednesday. Republican candidate Mitt Romney criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the attack on the embassy in Cairo, but those comments quickly sparked a retort from Democrats.
The presidential campaign took a sharp turn into foreign policy in the wake of the attacks in Libya and Egypt.
Speaking in Florida, Republican candidate Mitt Romney told reporters that the attacks were “outrageous” and “disgusting” and said Americans joined together to mourn the loss of four Americans in Libya including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
But Romney then zeroed in on an early statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo that criticized the obscure video allegedly made in the United States that triggered the violence.
The embassy statement condemned efforts by what it called “misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims,” and was issued before the announcement of the deaths of U.S. diplomats in Libya.
Romney called the embassy statement disgraceful.
“When our (embassy) 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,” Romney said.
Romney was then pressed by reporters as to whether it was wise for him to comment on a foreign policy crisis as it was unfolding.
“I don’t think we ever hesitate when we see something which is a violation of our principles. We express immediately when we feel that the president and his administration have done something which is inconsistent with the principles of America,” Romney said.
A short time later, President Barack Obama appeared at the White House with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to express sorrow for the deaths of the U.S. diplomats and to condemn the violence.
“The United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None,” Obama said.
Obama did not respond to Romney’s comments in his remarks. But earlier the Obama campaign criticized the Romney campaign for choosing to launch what it called a “political attack” in the midst of an unfolding situation overseas.
Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Romney attack was “irresponsible,” “callous” and “reckless.”
But Romney did get some support from fellow Republicans including California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.
“The response suggested an understanding of Muslim rage toward a negative portrayal of their religion. There is no understanding of that type of violence,” Rohrabacher said.
Many political analysts were surprised that Romney would weigh in so strongly in the midst of an unfolding international situation.
Analyst Rhodes Cook is the author of a Washington political newsletter.
“You know the economy is Obama’s ‘Achilles Heel,’ not foreign policy. So to go there and go so forcefully at a time when several American diplomats have been killed and to make it kind of a political debate over the administration’s foreign policy is, you know, open to question,” Cook said.
The Romney comments also provoked a strong reaction from some foreign policy experts.
Lawrence Korb is a former Defense Department official who is now with the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning policy research group in Washington.
“Well, I should say that I’m appalled, but not surprised because I think the Romney campaign is desperate to try and close the gap on foreign policy, which had been a traditional Republican strength in the elections but it is not this time,” Korb said.
Public opinion polls have given President Obama an advantage over Romney in handling foreign policy, especially in the wake of last year’s U.S. commando raid in Pakistan that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Foreign policy will be the subject of the third and final presidential debate to be held October 22.