Republicans have pivoted to a broad critique of President Obama’s leadership and foreign policy as violence in the Middle East threatens to escalate in the aftermath of the brutal killing of American personnel in Libya.
Obama’s challenger for the White House, GOP nominee Mitt Romney, fired the first shot on Wednesday when he accused the Obama administration of sending “mixed messages” that signaled weakness to the world as protesters stormed a U.S. embassy in Cairo on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
He followed that up Thursday with a swipe at the president’s handling of the cuts to the military from sequestration, arguing the reductions will sap America’s military might.
"Ever since [President] FDR, we've had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once and he's said no, we're going to cut that budget to only one," Romney said of Obama at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Va.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the president’s rival from four years ago, said the United States is paying a heavy price for Obama’s “feckless foreign policy.”
“What this is all about is American weakness and the president’s inability to lead,” McCain said on NBC’s “Today” show. “Iraq is dissolving. Our relations with Israel are at a tension point. I’d like to see the president of the U.S. speak out for once for the 20,000 people that are being massacred in Syria.
“There’s an absence of American leadership in the region and they are very weak,” McCain said.
McCain joined three other GOP senators on the floor Thursday to criticize President Obama as not having a plan to prevent automatic cuts to Pentagon spending. They connected the violence in the Middle East to the fight over the defense cuts, with McCain saying recent events show the Pentagon's budget should not be trimmed.
“Where is the commander in chief on this?” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
Polls have consistently given Obama an edge on national security over Romney, an advantage that Democrats tried to solidify last week at their convention by repeatedly invoking the killing of Osama bin Laden and the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They said the risky SEAL raid in Pakistan, ordered over the objections of top advisers, was evidence of Obama’s decisive leadership and toughness.
Obama rebuked Romney’s criticism of his administration on Wednesday and said the United States remains the world’s premier power.
“The Unites States doesn't have an option of withdrawing from the world, and we're the one indispensable nation. Countries all around the world look to us for leadership, even countries where sometimes you experience protests, and so it's important for us to stay engaged,” he said.
But continued unrest in the Middle East — coming at a time when tensions between Israel and Iran are reaching a crisis point — could weaken Obama’s image as commander in chief and help Romney reclaim the advantage on national security that has slipped away from the GOP in recent years.
McCain said he hoped Romney would use the budding crisis in the Middle East to contrast his foreign policy vision with the president’s.
“The fact is the United States in the Middle East is weak … and we are paying the price for that weakness,” McCain said Thursday on MSNBC. “There is a lack of leadership there, and that’s what I would be talking about, and I hope that Mitt Romney will be looking at the big picture.”
Republicans are also reviving the charge that President Obama embarked on an “apology tour” when he visited Egypt at the beginning of his presidency and gave a speech aimed at resetting relations with the Arab street.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) blamed the unrest in Libya and elsewhere on Obama’s "policy of appeasement” and said the violence is bound to spread.
"There is war against America throughout the entire region. They're attacking us now,” Inhofe said.
Ayotte told The Hill after speaking on the Senate floor that Obama set a new tone during his 2009 remarks in Cairo that "the rogue actors in the world really interpreted ... as weakness rather than American strength." She mentioned the instability in Iraq, the failure to stop the violence in Syria and Iran's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.
"We do see the Middle East right now somewhat unraveling," Ayotte said. "And I think really it begins with the tone he set in his administration. ... I think we should have had stronger American leadership."
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, which left four Americans dead, spilled over Thursday morning into Yemen, a hotspot where al Qaeda and other terror groups have taken root.
Protesters tried to scale the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and were quoted in media reports as saying they were angered by an anti-Islamic video made in the United States that mocks the Prophet Muhammad. Violence in Egypt and Libya has also been attributed to the video, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday condemned as “disgusting and reprehensible.”
But there is a growing conviction in Washington that radical Islamists, and perhaps al Qaeda, are simply using the film as a pretext for planned attacks on Americans abroad. Some fear it might signal the beginning of a new wave of violence.
"These are all opportunities that are stacking up for individuals who want to go after American stations abroad," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN's "Starting Point."
The turmoil poses a danger to the president’s reelection bid, which could take a major hit if he is seen as helpless in the face of unfolding events in Syria, Egypt, Israel and elsewhere.
The top Republican in the Senate on Thursday said the United States has reached a “grave moment” that calls for clear leadership from the White House.
“None of our nation’s enemies, al Qaeda, other violent extremists, Hezbollah and especially Iran should view this moment as an American window of vulnerability,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said from the Senate floor.
“This is a moment for Americans to show our closest allies in the Middle East that we unequivocally stand with them. No mixed signals. Neither Israel, nor any of our allies, should ever have any reason to doubt that resolve.”
— Ramsey Cox, Julian Pecquet, Justin Sink, Ian Swanson and Dustin Weaver contributed.