Mitt Romney is coming under fire for remarks he made in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's breach at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, and the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, which killed the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans. The attacks came after clips from a controversial amateur film, The Innocence of Muslims, made the rounds in those two countries. In the film, Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is portrayed as a murderer and a sexual deviant. In Islam, it is considered blasphemous to portray Muhammad at all, let alone in a negative light.
After protesters scaled the wall of the American embassy in Cairo and took down an American flag, the embassy issued a statement that struck a conciliatory note, saying in part,
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions... We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
It is perhaps understandable that the embassy in Cairo would would respond with a condemnation of "those who abuse the universal right of free speech," hoping to avoid and prevent an even bigger and more serious breach. Later, a senior Obama administration official told Politico, “The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton subsequently issued a strongly worded statement, as if to set the record straight:
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
Romney issued a statement of his own. "I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi," it read. "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."
A Buzzfeed piece by Ben Smith cites several prominent Republicans who criticized Romney's statement as a "bungle," an "utter disaster," and "not presidential."
On Wednesday, Romney held a press conference in which he stood by his criticisms of the Obama administration's handling of the situation. Romney called Tuesday's message from the Cairo embassy "a disgraceful statement on the part of the administration." He also noted, "The White House distanced itself last night from the statement, saying it wasn’t cleared by Washington. And that reflects the mixed signals they’re sending to the world."
Is Mitt Romney trying to exploit the attacks in the Middle East for political gain, or do his criticisms of President Obama's handling of the situation amount to a legitimate critique of his ability to lead?