JACKSONVILLE, Fla. --Seizing on a press release that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued before violence erupted there and in Libya, Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration Wednesday of sending “mixed messages” to the Middle East, including making “an apology for America’s values.”
Scrapping a planned campaign rally to hold a hastily arranged news conference, Romney acknowledged that the White House had distanced itself from the embassy statement, which he considered an apology. But he said President Obama is responsible for the statement.
“We join together in the condemnation of the attacks on American embassies and the loss of American life, and join in the sympathy for these people,” Romney said at his Jacksonville campaign office. “But 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 and in my view, a disgraceful statement on the part of our administration to apologize for American values.”
For Romney, the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans interrupted, yet again, his campaign’s plans to focus on the weak economy as the key issue in the presidential campaign. But shifting to foreign policy, which polls show is a clear strength for Obama, gave Romney the opportunity to appear presidential in discussing a foreign crisis.
Before he took questions from reporters, Romney made a brief statement, standing behind a podium in front of four American flags. In tone and substance, much of it was what might be expected from a president.
At the end, however, he launched a political attack on Obama. The administration, he said, “was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions.“
Romney was peppered with questions about a statement his campaign put out the night before -- after the violence had been reported in Egypt and Libya, but before it was known that U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was among the four dead. At the time, reports indicated only one American had been killed.
“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,” the statement said. “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.”
Romney stood behind those remarks Wednesday, even though the initial statement from the Cairo embassy -- the “first response” referred to by Romney – was issued before protesters had breached the embassy walls. The embassy, apparently referring to an anti-Islamic video reportedly made by an Israeli American, said the United States condemns “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
After the attack, the embassy sent a series of Twitter feeds, one of which said: “Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.” Another said: “Of course we condemn breaches of our compound, we’re the ones actually living through this.”
Romney said those statements – it was not clear which --amounted to an apology for American values, particularly free speech. Asked if he hadn’t reacted hastily by offering criticism before the full events were known, he said: “The White House also issued a statement saying it tried to distance itself from those comments and said they were not reflecting of their views. I had the exact same reaction.”
He went on: “These views were inappropriate, they were the wrong course to take when our embassy has been breached by protesters. The first response should not be to say, ‘Yes, we stand by our comments that suggest there’s something wrong with the right of free speech.”
Asked how he believed the White House had erred, he said: “It’s their administration. Their administration spoke. The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth but for the words that come 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 ... akin to an apology and was, I think, a severe miscalculation.”
In his comments at the White House later Wednesday, President Obama did not respond to Romney’s criticism. His campaign had issued a statement just after midnight, however, attacking Romney for his campaign’s initial remarks.
“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,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in an emailed statement.
It was the second day that the campaigns clashed over policy toward the Middle East. On Tuesday, the White House confirmed that President Obama would not meet Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, during the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month because they are scheduled to attend on different days.
Israeli media reported that the White House had rebuffed Netanyahu’s request for a meeting because Obama was displeased with the Israeli leader’s criticism of U.S. policy on Iran. The White House issued a statement late Tuesday saying that Obama had spoken by phone with Netanyahu for an hour and the two leaders “reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and agreed to continue their close consultations going forward.”
The White House said that “contrary to media reports,” Obama had not declined a request to meet Netanyahu.
Still, the dispute gave Romney an opening in Florida, a swing state where Israel is a key concern for many voters.
“I stand with our friends in Israel,” Romney said here Wednesday. “I stand with our allies. I stand strong with our allies. I can’t ever imagine if the prime minister of Israel asked to meet with me, I can’t imagine ever saying no. They’re our friends, they’re our closest allies in the Middle East.”