By Julian Pecquet - 09/12/12 05:38 PM EDT
Violence in the post-Arab Spring Middle East threatened to upset the presidential race Wednesday after the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other staffers were killed in an attack by an angry mob on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
Ambassador Christopher Stevens, two security officials and another consulate worker were killed as they tried to evacuate the burning building set aflame by protesters.
Initial reports attributed the attack to anger over a crude anti-Islam Web video that mocked the religion. But Obama administration officials now suspect the attack on the consulate was planned, according to The New York Times, though the intelligence is inconclusive.
Romney issued a statement late Tuesday, before the full extent of the tragedy was known, that said the Obama administration was wrong to initially sympathize with those who waged the attacks.
“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," Romney said in a statement — released before he learned of the death of Stevens. "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.”
Romney was referring to a statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo that criticized the makers of the film "Innocence of Muslims" for abusing “the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."
Protestors in Libya and Egypt went to the streets in outrage over the movie after an excerpt dubbed into Arabic received publicity. The film satirically portrays the life of the Prophet Muhammad, including a sex scene. It has been promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who provoked riots in Muslim countries by burning Qurans.
Romney canceled a campaign event Wednesday but doubled down on his criticism in remarks to reporters in Florida.
"President Obama has demonstrated a lack of clarity as to a foreign policy," Romney said. "I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions.
"It's never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and defend our values," he said.
Just after Romney spoke, Obama delivered remarks from the White House Rose Garden. The president offered no overtly political remarks and did not respond to Romney, but focused his comments on mourning Stevens and honoring the service he had offered the country.
“He worked tirelessly to support this young democracy, and both Secretary Clinton and I relied deeply on his knowledge of the situation on the ground there,” Obama said. “He was a role model to all who worked with him and to the young diplomats who aspire to walk in his footsteps. Along with his colleagues, Chris died in a country that is still striving to emerge from the recent experience of war."
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both sought to emphasize solidarity with Libya's government, and the two made a point of saying some Libyans sought to protect the U.S. embassy from the mob.
Earlier on Wednesday, Obama's campaign fired back at Romney's initial statement.
“We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Gov. Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
A few Republicans also criticized Romney's remark as being tone deaf.
GOP strategist John Weaver tweeted that Romney was getting bad advice and coming off as "inexperienced and craven."
Republican lawmakers issuing statements on Wednesday mourned the loss of life but generally avoided direct criticism of the administration.
"These terrible incidents highlight the ongoing security challenges in Libya and Egypt, and I call upon the Libyan and Egyptian governments to protect diplomatic facilities, secure their borders, and redouble efforts to combat extremist terrorism within their countries," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement.
"Eleven years after Sept. 11, it is clear that Islamic extremist terrorism still poses a tremendous threat to the Middle East, to the United States, and to the international community. These attacks will not deter America from continuing to promote peace, democracy, individual and religious freedom and an unwavering respect for human life throughout the region and the world."
Foreign policy has been a strength in the presidential race for Obama, who has enjoyed a bounce in polls after a Democratic convention where he touted his successes in the war on terror. The violence in Libya and Egypt threatens that strength by raising questions about U.S. policy toward Middle Eastern countries with new, Islamic governments.
Libya remains unstable one year after U.S.- and NATO-backed rebels deposed strongman Moammar Gadhafi. And Egypt is in the midst of negotiating a $4.8 billion low-interest IMF loan and a $1 billion debt-relief package with the United States.
It also comes as Obama faces new pressure from Israel to consider a military strike on Iran to prevent it from gaining nuclear weapons.
Obama learned of Stevens’s death Wednesday morning after learning Stevens was unaccounted for Tuesday night, according to the White House.
The four staffers killed “exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
Clinton put out a statement late Tuesday condemning “in the strongest terms” the attack on the Libyan consulate:
“As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed,” she said. “We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack."
Clinton said the Libyan president had “expressed his condemnation and condolences and pledged his government’s full cooperation.”
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet,” she added. “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.”
Obama said he had directed the administration to "increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe."
Obama also praised Stevens, calling him a “courageous and exemplary representative of the United States.”
“His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice,” Obama said.
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the online film’s writer, director and producer, Sam Bacile, said he wanted to showcase his view of Islam as a hateful religion.
“Islam is a cancer,” he told the newspaper in a telephone interview. “The movie is a political movie. It’s not a religious movie.”
— Meghashyam Mali and Justin Sink contributed.
This story was published at 6:33 a.m. and has been updated.