Presidential Race
2:45 am
Thu September 13, 2012

Attacks Move Foreign Policy To Center Of Campaign

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the attacks in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world come in the midst of a presidential campaign. It became, in effect, a test of leadership for both the president and his Republican challenger. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama learned Wednesday morning that Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomats were killed in the Libyan city of Benghazi. When he spoke in the White House Rose Garden hours later, he didn't mention politics.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, we mourn for more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America.

SHAPIRO: He stood with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and called for unity.

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OBAMA: The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.

SHAPIRO: But the attacks were already a political football. Mitt Romney visited his campaign's office in Jacksonville, Florida and doubled-down on a statement his campaign released the night before, accusing the Obama administration of sympathizing with the attackers.

MITT ROMNEY: The first response from the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of the nation. An apology for America's values is never the right course.

SHAPIRO: Romney was referring to a message the U.S. embassy in Cairo released early Tuesday before the attacks. That statement criticized a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which may have sparked the protests. That embassy statement did not apologize, as Romney claimed. It said: We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others. The White House says the message was not authorized by the administration.

When Romney took questions from reporters in Jacksonville, he said it's entirely appropriate to hold the White House accountable for the message and to criticize this president over the attacks.

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ROMNEY: We have a campaign for presidency of the United States and are speaking about the different courses we would each take with regards to the challenges that the world faces.

SHAPIRO: He argued that this president's foreign policy has emboldened America's enemies by sending mixed messages.

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ROMNEY: It's a hit-or-miss approach, but it has not been based upon sound foreign policy.

SHAPIRO: Other Republican leaders held fire, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Among the things we can agree on in Washington is that the attacks on the U.S. and its representatives will be met with resolve, and that America's presence and defense of our national interests across the globe will not be deterred by the acts of violent extremists.

SHAPIRO: House Speaker John Boehner ordered flags at the Capitol to fly at half-staff, and some Republicans wondered aloud whether Romney had gone too far. Peggy Noonan spoke on Fox.

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PEGGY NOONAN: I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors.

SHAPIRO: Senator John McCain's former chief of staff Mark Salter called Romney's response as tortured in its reasoning as it is unseemly in its timing. And Senator Dan Coats of Indiana was on CNN.

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SENATOR DAN COATS: Let's avoid the political statements right now.

SHAPIRO: Aaron David Miller is a Mideast expert who has advised secretaries of state in both parties. He says, in a situation like this, the incumbent president has a huge home court advantage. Romney responded in one of the few ways available to a challenger, says Miller.

AARON DAVID MILLER: I suspect Romney in a closely contested campaign in which they're trying to rally the base, plus pick a few disaffected independent voters could actually get some traction on this issue. Whether it's logical or not is another matter.

SHAPIRO: Later in the day, President Obama spoke to CBS News, and this time he took on his opponent directly.

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OBAMA: Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first, name later. And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that.

SHAPIRO: It's the first time foreign policy has taken such a prominent role in this presidential campaign. This is an issue where Democrats currently out-poll Republicans for the first time in decades. These attacks may be the biggest test so far of whether that will remain true through the election. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.