12 Sep 2012

Fury as Republicans accuse Obama over embassy attacks

There’s fear, there’s loathing, and there’s electoral politics. Top Republicans say President Obama’s foreign policy triggered the attacks on US diplomatic staff – calling it “disgraceful”.

Foreign policy has stormed centre stage in the US elections. In the rush to condemn the bloody attacks on American diplomatic buildings in Libya and Egypt, the Republicans have pinned the blame on President Obama’s foreign policy, accusing him of ‘appeasing’ his enemies.

Last night the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney condemned what he called Obama’s “disgraceful” handling of the situation. He claimed the administration’s first response had been to apologise.

“It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathise with those who waged the attacks”.

He was referring to tweets posted by the US embassy in Cairo, condemning “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions”.

The tweets came amid an increasingly furious reaction in the region to news of a US-made film which is said to make fun of the Prophet Mohammad.

Angry crowds of protestors surrounded the embassy building in the Egyptian capital, breaching its walls and tearing down the US flag, which had been flying at half mast to mark the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

Obama sympathises with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic. Reince Priebus, RNC chairman

Mr Romney described the statement as an “apology for America’s values” of free speech, and said the president was responsible “not just for the words that come from his mouth, but for tge words that come from his ambassadors … from his embassies”.

However the tweet he was referring to had been posted before the Cairo attack took place, and well before the far more violent assault which was launched by Islamist extremists on the US consulate in Benghazi, eastern Libya.

Furthermore, the White House official told Politico that the statement “was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.” The tweets themselves have now been deleted.

Republicans condemn Obama

But this didn’t stop the GOP attacks on what they saw as a key weakness towards those bent on harming the United States and its interests. Before the news came through that the US ambassador to Libya had been killed, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Preibus, vented his anger on Twitter: “Obama sympathises with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.”

Mitt Romney’s policy advisor Rich Williamson had echoed that sentiment in an interview with the magazine Foreign Policy, claiming Obama’s failure to provide proper leadership had helped to prolong turbulence throughout the region, while reducing US influence.

“Maybe if (Obama) had continued to support democracy and civil society in these countries the way that Bush did, the way they should, maybe the more moderate forces would have better prepared to compete for political power.”

The president’s team were outraged by what they saw as an attempt by Romney to use the crisis for his own political ends: “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”, said campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt.

But Romney has not tempered his remarks, despite newspaper reports making it clear that the Cairo embassy tweet which sparked the initial anger had been sent before the attacks took place, and later retracted.

In a press conference this afternoon, Romney said he stood by his initial criticism, saying the White House had “clearly sent mixed messages to the world”, and accusing president Obama of demonstrating “a lack of clarity on foreign policy.”

To some observers, this puts the candidate in the same camp as some of the most conservative voices in the GOP: like Sarah Palin, who posted various comments on her Facebook page, describing the US embassy response as “so outrageous many of us thought it was a satire.”

And the firebrand Florida congressman Allen West claimed: “Obama’s policy of appeasement towards the Islamic world has manifested itself in a specter of unconscionable hatred.”

Not ready for prime time?

It is not just liberal commentators who have been uncomfortable with the Romney response: on Fox News, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan warned against the wisdom of giving statements in the midst of ongoing violence: “You’re always leaving yourself open to accusations that you are trying to exploit things, politically. I don’t feel that Mr Romney has been doing himself any favours, say, in the past few hours, since last night.”

And Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith has collected some reaction from some (unnamed) Republican foreign policy experts which are not terribly flattering about their candidate’s response: “Bungle… utter disaster… not ready for prime time… not presidential”, although this reaction was by no means unanimous.

Back in California, the Associated Press spoke to the writer and director Sam Bacile, whose film, “Innocence of Muslims” triggered the whole wave of violence. He described it as “a political movie” which was “fighting with ideas”, and claimed he had gone into hiding.

Another tweet from the US Embassy in Cairo made its position clear: “Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.”

Meanwhile US embassies in Algeria and Tunisia have warned of potential protests; US marines have been dispatched to Libya to provide extra security; President Obama has ordered increased protection for Americans and US missions around the world.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News