The consulate was attacked during anti-U.S. protests that have roiled the Middle East over the past two weeks, calling into question Mr. Obama’s approach to foreign policy in the Muslim world.
The shifting reasons for the attack in Libya also highlighted a challenge for Mr. Obama in the presidential race, where he is presenting himself to voters as the experienced hand compared with Mr. Romney. At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this month, the president portrayed his Republican opponent as new to foreign policy.
Mr. Obama is under increasing criticism from the right over his handling of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and his perceived reluctance to give full-throated cooperation to Israel in stopping Iran from developing a weapon of mass destruction.
Mr. Romney, addressing former President Bill Clinton’s international foundation in New York earlier in the day, insisted again that the Benghazi attack was an act of terrorism. A spokeswoman for Mr. Romney’s campaign added that, more broadly, the president is failing to lead internationally.
“For nearly four years, President Obama’s foreign policy has left our closest allies alienated and our security threatened,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “Instead of delivering a ‘new beginning’ with Iran, the president’s failed policies have allowed Iran to move closer toward nuclear-weapons capability. Our national security and allies in the Middle East can’t afford four more years like the last four years under President Obama. As president, Mitt Romney will ensure that Iran is never permitted to develop a nuclear-weapons capability.”
But Mr. Obama devoted the bulk of his speech to explaining his approach to the Muslim world in light of the widespread backlash against the U.S. He asked other cultures to accept the American principle of free speech while laying much of the blame for the violence on the “disgusting” video.
“I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video,” Mr. Obama said. “The answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.”
The president held himself up as an example of someone who shrugs off offensive commentary.
“As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so,” he said. “Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views that we disagree with.”
He used the story of Mr. Stevens‘ life as the ideal of American foreign service and said other cultures should appreciate the diplomat’s commitment to improving the countries where he worked.
“I tell you this story because Chris Stevens embodied the best of America,” Mr. Obama said. “He acted with humility, but stood up for a set of principles — a belief that individuals should be free to determine their own destiny, and live with liberty, dignity, justice and opportunity.”
The president said leaders in every country have an obligation “to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism.”
“It is time to marginalize those who — even when not resorting to violence — use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics,” he said. “For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence. That brand of politics — one that pits East against West; South against North; Muslim against Christian, Hindu and Jew — cannot deliver the promise of freedom. Burning an American flag will do nothing to educate a child. Smashing apart a restaurant will not fill an empty stomach. Attacking an embassy won’t create a single job. That brand of politics only makes it harder to achieve what we must do together: educating our children and creating the opportunities they deserve; protecting human rights; and extending democracy’s promise.”