The anti-Islam film that spurred protests in Libya and Egypt, leading to the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi, made a dramatic entry into the US presidential race on September 11.
Republican Party presidential nominee Mitt Romney criticised what he said was the Obama administration’s “first response” to the violence, which he described as “disgraceful” and as an “apology” for the United States.
He was referring to a statement issued by the US embassy in Cairo condemning the obscure film, variously entitled The Innocence of Islam and The Real Life of Muhammad, which mocks Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
The embassy had tweeted: “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” The tweet, among others, was subsequently deleted.
However, as Talking Points Memo noted, the statement was issued before the violence occurred, and the administration of US President Barack Obama had not approved the statement.
Meanwhile, Obama has vowed to bring those who attacked the US consulate in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi to justice. The president called the attack "outrageous and shocking" and described the United States as "the one indispensable power in the world".
Two warships are heading to the Libyan coast, where 50 US Marines are being sent to protect the diplomats there.
'Apologising' for America?
Romney stood by his attack on Obama when pressed by reporters. On Wednesday, he charged that the Obama administration “clearly sent mixed messages to the world”, and that “the statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology”.
The Republican nominee has long panned Obama as overly critical of the United States’ shortcomings, and insufficiently effusive in his praise for the country's strengths. In 2009, Romney described an Obama trip to the Middle East as a “tour of apology”. The following year, St Martin’s Press published Romney’s book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, which alludes to this criticism of the president.
In a speech given in 2011 at the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, Romney said as president he will "never, ever apologise for America" and that he "believe[s] we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world".
American exceptionalism - the idea that the United States is superior and has a unique role in spreading democracy in the world - has long been a trope in US politics.
Hilde Restad, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and an expert on US politics, says questioning a politician's belief in American exceptionalism can be "a really effective way of hurting a political candidate". Romney's move may be seen as a "play to the partisan base", Restad told Al Jazeera. "It might not get any independents, but it'll make the people who look to the right very happy."
That said, Restad isn't sure Romney's attack will work in today's political environment. In part due to the financial crisis and decreasing social mobility in the US, she says, Americans "are starting to question, a little bit, what it means that the United States is supposed to be exceptional."
Criticism of Romney’s response
A few Republicans joined in Romney’s criticism of Obama, with Reince Preibus, the chair of the Republican National Committee, tweeting: “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.”
However, many Republicans were critical of Romney's comments. Some of those who largely agreed with the gist of his campaign's statements say he should not have been so hasty, and ought to have held off on responding until the attacks were over.
Former Republican senator John Sununu said the Romney campaign "probably should have waited" before criticising the Obama administration.
Rick Perry’s former foreign policy adviser, Victoria Coates, told Buzzfeed: “It’s deeply unfortunate when the circumstance of the statement becomes the story.”
Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York, said that although he thinks Romney “in the big picture is right”, he said he himself “probably would have waited 12 to 24 hours before I put out a comprehensive statement” because it can be “misinterpreted when something tragic happens”.
And conservative commentator Peggy Noonan said Romney’s response was “not doing himself any favours”.
Predictably, those on the other side of the aisle were harsher on Romney. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry said the Republican candidate's words were "about as inappropriate as anything I have ever seen at this kind of a moment", and New York Congressman Steve Israel said his comments were "absolutely appalling".
For his part, President Obama accused Romney of having “a tendency to shoot first and aim later” in a CBS interview.
Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA's counterintelligence centre, told Al Jazeera that “when Americans are killed or injured or are in danger abroad, it’s generally considered to be bad form to criticise a current administration”.
Romney's statements "seem to be a rather sharp and jarring exception from that general rule", said Grenier.
In contrast, he pointed to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, in which Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan "was very careful not to criticise [President Jimmy] Carter or his administration policy toward Iran - throughout the entire campaign, in fact".
Middle East making a splash
Talk about foreign policy has re-emerged in the US presidential campaign, which for much of its duration had focused on the anodyne US economy.
Aside from the attacks in Libya and Egypt, Republicans have questioned Obama's alleged refusal to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a planned visit to the US, news that was leaked by an Israeli official on Tuesday. However, the Obama administration says Netanyahu had never sought a meeting with the president in the first place.
On Wednesday, Romney said at a campaign event in Florida that he "can't imagine ever saying no" if the Israeli prime minister wanted to meet, according to the New York Daily News.