WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of minimizing volatile Middle East threats as "bumps in the road" Monday after the White House branded such Republican attacks as "desperate and offensive."
The White House hopeful's fellow Republicans meanwhile complained Obama had downgraded the US alliance with Israel, seizing on the president's interview with CBS "60 Minutes" in a bid to erode his electoral edge on foreign policy.
Obama said in the interview broadcast Sunday that there were going to be "bumps in the road" following the Arab spring as nations dominated by Islam and formerly governed by autocrats evolve towards democracy.
But Romney said the comments smacked of weak US leadership and amounted to downplaying the death of ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.
"When the president was speaking about bumps in the road he was talking about the developments in the Middle East and that includes an assassination," Romney told NBC News in an interview.
"It includes a Muslim brotherhood individual becoming President of Egypt, it includes Syria being in tumult, it includes Iran being on the cusp of having nuclear capability, it includes Pakistan being in commotion."
"Considering those events, either one of them, or all of them collectively as bumps in the road shows a person who has a very different perspective about world affairs and the perspective I have," Romney said.
"I think this is a time for America to exert leadership and this is not something that we are doing in the Middle East."
White House spokesman Jay Carney reacted sharply to earlier Republican claims that Obama's comment was tantamount to minimizing the four American deaths in Libya. "That assertion is both desperate and offensive," he said.
"The president was referring to the transformations in the region, to this process that only began less than two years ago ... with remarkable transformations occurring in countries around the region."
Obama's re-election campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith also rebuked Romney.
"He's purposely misinterpreting the president's words and making reckless statements about the death of four Americans in Libya, apparently for the sole purpose of his own political gain," she said.
"Using this incident to launch political attacks should be beneath someone seeking to be our nation's commander-in-chief."
Romney was not the only Republican to seek to exploit Obama's comments, with every utterance of either candidate grist for political attack and manipulation with the election just over 40 days away.
"I guess when u win a Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing, an attack that kills an Ambassador is just a 'bump in the road,'" former George W. Bush presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Twitter.
Eric Cantor, a Republican leader in the House of Representatives also hammered Obama.
"Even as the black flags of Al-Qaeda are being hoisted over our embassies and our consulates attacked by terrorists, President Obama considers these problems no more than bumps in the road for his foreign policy," he said.
Obama, who headed to the United Nations on Monday for annual meetings, was also taken to task over his remarks on Israel's warnings on the Iranian nuclear threat.
"When it comes to our national security decisions -- any pressure that I feel is simply to do what's right for the American people. And I am going to block out -- any noise that's out there," he said on "60 Minutes."
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican chairwoman of the House International Relations Committee, issued a statement through the Romney campaign condemning Obama's remarks.
"The president of the United States must be unwavering in his commitment and resolve to standing with our most loyal democratic ally.
"President Obama has fallen far short of that, which is one of the reasons we must have Mitt Romney in the White House," she said.
Carney rejected the Republican charge.
"There's obviously a lot of noise around this issue at times," he said, and rejected Republican complaints that the president termed Israel only as "one of our closest allies in the region."
"You've heard the President say numerous times that Israel is our closest ally in the region," Carney told reporters.