By Mike Lillis - 09/30/12 02:35 PM EDT
Republicans continued this weekend to hammer the Obama administration over its response to the recent Libya attacks, with Sen. John McCain calling the president "inept" and "ignorant" in his handling of the episode.
"It was either willful ignorance or dismal intelligence to think that people come to spontaneous demonstrations with heavy weapons, mortars, and the attack goes on for hours," McCain said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" program.
"To blame it on the video … shows the absolute ineptitude and ignorance of the realities," McCain added. "It's not the videos, it's the radical Islamists [who] are pushing the videos."
McCain said the White House was initially reluctant to label the attack a planned act of terrorism for fear of exposing the level of turmoil in the Middle East, a region he characterized as "unraveling" under Obama's watch.
"It interferes with the depiction that the administration is trying to convey that Al Qaeda is on the wane [and] that everything's fine in the Middle East," said McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"This president doesn't believe in American exceptionalism and he keeps telling people we're leaving. Have you ever heard him say victory?"
McCain also hammered Obama's response to the Syrian civil war, arguing that the United States "should be arming" the rebels who are struggling against the military regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"The role of America is to lead, not to follow," McCain said.
Appearing on the same program, David Axelrod, a senior Obama campaign advisor, defended the administration's response to the Benghazi attack, arguing that the White House was simply reacting to what was known at the time.
"When you're the responsible party, when you're the administration, then you have a responsibility to act on what you know and what the intelligence community believes," Axelrod said. "What we don't need is a president or an administration that shoots first and asks questions later."
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed on Sept. 11 when the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked. The Obama administration had initially claimed the violence was spawned by a crude, web-based video critical of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad that originated in the United States. More recently, the administration has said it was a more organized episode, with a national intelligence spokesman issuing an unusual statement Friday calling the assault "a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists."
The unrest has thrust foreign affairs into the presidential contest, putting intense pressure on Obama to manage the crisis even as GOP nominee Mitt Romney and other top Republicans have hammered the administration's response.
On Friday, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, stepped up the GOP criticism of the administration's reaction, calling on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice to resign for her initial claims that the video was behind the turmoil.
McCain on Sunday suggested that was a step too far, saying that Rice was simply "the messenger" for the White House.
"They sent her out to say things that were absolutely false," he said.