JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mitt Romney hammered the Obama administration Wednesday for not immediately condemning the violent mobs that stormed U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East and left four Americans dead, including the ambassador to Libya.
Mr. Obama refused to trade punches with the Republican presidential nominee in a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House where he strongly condemned the attacks. But the Democrat did counter Mr. Romney’s criticism later in the day during an interview with CBS, saying the former Massachusetts governor “seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
Repercussions from the attacks also were felt on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers mourned the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his staffers, and pondered how the attacks will influence U.S. interests in the popular uprisings in the Middle East.
Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said the attacks “have the markings of revenge by al Qaeda” and suggested the incidents may be tied to the killing in June of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a top leader of the terrorist network.
“In light of Monday night’s Internet-video statement by the head of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who urged Libyans to attack Americans to avenge the recent death of al-Libi, I am asking my colleagues on the Senate intelligence committee to immediately investigate what role al Qaeda or its affiliates may have played in the attacks,” Mr. Nelson said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, Lindsay Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, released a joint statement in which they said the nation must not let the move toward democracy in the Middle East be hijacked by small groups of extremists.
“We cannot resign ourselves to the false belief that the Arab Spring is doomed to be defined not by the desire for democracy and freedom that has inspired millions of people to peaceful action, but by the dark fanaticism of terrorists,” the senators wrote.
The attacks — sparked, apparently, by a low-budget anti-Muslim film made in the U.S. — managed to thrust foreign policy back onto the front burner in the campaign, ending what had been a daylong political truce on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Before it was clear that Mr. Stevens and three of his staffers had been killed Mr. Romney threw a stiff jab at the president.
After arriving in Jacksonville on Tuesday night, Mr. Romney took particular aim a statement issued by the embassy in Cairo that appeared to apologize for the anti-Muslim film.
“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,” Mr. Romney said, an attack that dovetails with his broader attempts to brand Mr. Obama as someone more interested in appeasing global foes than embracing allies.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt countered that Mr. Romney’s criticism was out of bounds.
“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, Gov. Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” the spokesman said.
News reports also suggested the storming of the embassy happened after the embassy issued the statement, which the administration disavowed.
Mr. Romney, though, doubled down on the attacks during a impromptu news conference here Wednesday, saying that Mr. Obama bungled the initial U.S. response to the attacks and accused the administration of issuing a statement “akin to an apology” for Americans’ freedom of speech.