JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Wednesday stood by his criticism of the Obama administration for its initial response to attacks against U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt, calling the White House’s reaction disgraceful.
In a campaign dominated by the weak U.S. economy, the Libya crisis and the killing of the U.S. ambassador there put foreign policy in the spotlight with less than two months to go before the November 6 election between President Barack Obama and Romney.
Romney, eager to draw a distinction between himself and Obama on national security, also criticized Obama’s handling of the U.S. relationship with Israel a day after reports that Obama did not plan to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York this month during the U.N. General Assembly.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts who has little foreign policy experience, has drawn criticism for a statement his campaign issued on Tuesday night attacking the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for releasing a statement that the Republican said was an apology for U.S. values.
The embassy had condemned a film about the Prophet Mohammed that angered protesters in Libya and Egypt, who later attacked U.S. missions there. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three embassy staff were killed when Islamist gunmen stormed the U.S. consulate and a safe house refuge in Benghazi.
Romney said the timing of the statement, which denounced “efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”, made Obama look weak as protestors were attacking U.S. missions.
Romney said his campaign was right to criticize the embassy statement, which he said showed the White House apologizing for American values of free speech.
“We join together in the condemnation of the attacks on American embassies and the loss of American life and join in the sympathy for these people,” he said.
“But it’s also important for me, just as it was for the White House last night, by the way, to say that the statements were inappropriate and in my view a disgraceful statement on the part of our administration to apologize for American values.”
Romney said an apology for American values was never the right course and “the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation.”
He called the attacks disgusting and outrageous.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt criticized Romney for making a “political attack” at a time when the country was “confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya.”
Romney and Obama are locked in a tight election race with the Democrat holding a slight edge.
Romney found another opening to criticize Obama over Israel. The president and Netanyahu will be in New York for the U.N. annual gathering, but will not meet amid a rift between the two leaders over how aggressively to handle Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The White House says that, despite some news reports, the Israelis had never requested a meeting, and Obama and Netanyahu spoke for an hour on the phone on Tuesday, a session described as a reaffirmation of both leaders’ determination that Iran not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon.
“I stand with our friends in Israel. I stand with our allies,” Romney told a supporter after his news conference. “I can’t ever imagine if the prime minister of Israel asked to meet with me, I can’t imagine ever saying no. They’re our friends. They’re our closest allies in the Middle East.”
Romney, seeking to peel some Jewish voters away from Obama, was received warmly by Netanyahu when the Republican visited Jerusalem in July.
Editing by Alistair Bell and David Brunnstrom