Barack Obama has stepped into the political row over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s ill-judged response to the Benghazi consulate attack.
Romney faced heavy criticism from across the political spectrum for statements issued on Tuesday evening and repeated at a press conference on Wednesday morning in which he accused the Obama administration of being too ready to apologise for American values.
Former diplomats, foreign policy analysts and many Republicans distanced themselves from Romney’s remarks, accusing him of being premature in trying to make political capital out of a fatal attack on US diplomats. To add to his problems, the statements were quickly shown to be factually inaccurate.
On Wednesday morning, Obama had remained above the fray, focusing a statement in the White House rose garden on paying tribute to US ambassador Chris Stevens and the three other Americans who were killed, and promising justice.
But by mid-afternoon, while flying to a campaign stop in Las Vegas on Air Force One, he had engaged with the political row. In an interview with CBS, Obama said: “You know, Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
He added: “As president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that. It’s important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts. And that you’ve thought through the ramifications before you make them.”
Asked if Romney’s statements were “irresponsible,” Obama replied: ‘I’ll let the American people judge that.”
“I think most Americans, Democrats or Republicans, understand that there are times when we set politics aside, and one of those is when we’ve got a direct threat to American personnel overseas,” Obama said.
“And so I think that if you look at how most Republicans, most elected officials, have reacted, they’ve reacted responsibly, waiting to find out the facts before they talk, making sure that our number one priority is the safety and security of American personnel.”
Romney’s disastrous 24 hours began late on Tuesday – the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – in the wake of protests at the embassy in Cairo and as the Benghazi consulate attack was still unfolding.
He picked up on a statement by Cairo embassy staff expressing sympathy with Muslims angry over an anti-Islamic film apparently made in California. The embassy condemned “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”. Romney characterised this as an apology by the Obama administration for the right to free speech.
Waking up on Wednesday morning to critical reviews – and the news that the ambassador and three others were dead – Romney nevertheless repeated the attack, and went as far as to accuse Obama of sympathising with the Cairo protesters.
“They clearly sent mixed messages to the world, and the statement that came from the administration and the embassy is the administration,” he said during his hastily-convened press conference. “The statement that came from the administration was a statement akin to an apology.”
Romney was pressed repeatedly by reporters about whether he had jumped the gun in issuing his statement. But he insisted he had not made a mistake.
It could turn out to be one of the defining moments of the 2012 election, one that again exposed Romney’s lack of foreign policy experience. It may have done him more damage than all the millions of spent on negative campaign ads over the last two months by the Obama campaign.
Many senior Republicans greeted the renewed attack with horror, briefing reporters that Romney had made a catastrophic error of judgment that could have fatal consequences for his election campaign.
John McCain, the 2008 presidential candidate and a backer of Romney, refused to be drawn. But he did send a tweet applauding secretary of state Hillary Clinton for the tone of her statement, in which she said that the killings should not lead to a break in US-Libyan relations.
The Brookings Institution’s Martin Indyk, a former ambassador who served in the Clinton administration, told CNN issues such as these should not be used as political footballs. He added that Romney should have held back for at least a day.
The Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign affairs committee, John Kerry, said it was irresponsible, inexperienced and callous for Romney to make statements before knowing the facts.
“I don’t think he knows what he is talking about,” Kerry said.