After months of a remarkable laser focus on domestic policy and even as the anniversary of 9/11 had a more muted tone than in years past, overnight events overseas have unexpectedly shifted the focus of the presidential contest. It’s not clear how the campaigns will use Tuesday’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, but with less than two months until voters decide which man should be president, every event takes on outsized political importance.
Tuesday’s attack shook Washington, as officials learned that the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was one of four Americans killed.
As the New York Times put it, “[T]he killing, during an attack by an armed mob angry over a short American-made video mocking Islam’s founding prophet, threatens to upset Washington’s relations with the new Libyan government that took over after the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and sour American public opinion about the prospects of the democratic opening of the Arab Spring.”
Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith was also killed Tuesday. The names of the two other victims had not yet been released as of Wednesday morning, pending notification of their families.
The attack in Libya came after demonstrations Tuesday evening in Cairo, Egypt, where protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. embassy and burned its American flag.
Embassy officials in Cairo put out a statement that condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” It also condemned an “unjustified breach of our embassy.”
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney went after President Obama in a statement Monday night that his campaign had embargoed until after midnight. But the embargo broke early, adding to charges he was politicizing a sensitive issue on a day when politics was supposed to take a back seat.
“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’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 said.
Several news outlets reported that Romney may not have been aware of the timing of the embassy’s statement, but Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt retorted, “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, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack.”