US election campaign digest: embassy attacks, intelligence briefings and more

Embassy attacks roil election

Violent attacks on American interests sparked by an anti-Muslim film have rocked the Middle East and North Africa, with both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney coming under intense pressure as foreign policy moves to the forefront of the presidential election. In the most shocking assault on a US mission in the region, four officials, including Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, died when Islamic militants launched rocket-propelled grenades at America’s consulate in Benghazi.

Over the border in neighbouring Egypt, demonstrators besieged the US embassy in Cairo, sparking a stern response from the country’s security forces and prompting a rift between the Obama administration and Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s government. Unrest was also reported at American or western outposts in Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon and Iran.

President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have responded to events by honouring those who perished in Libya, and by pledging to work alongside the fledgling democracy as it apprehends those behind Tuesday’s attack. They have further deplored the offensive film that triggered the chaos, Innocence of the Muslims, while adding it could not serve as a justification for violence.

Obama’s Republican rival has meanwhile reacted by criticising the administration for initially having ‘sympathised’ with those who waged the attacks. In a statement released before details of Stevens’ death were known, the Romney campaign blasted the US Embassy in Cairo – and, by extension, Obama’s government – for condemning the film as its “first response” to the rioting. The GOP nominee gave a press conference on Wednesday morning during which he attempted to defend that claim despite glaring problems with its chronology. This highly political appearance was derided by the mainstream media, and provoked barely-concealed disdain from Republican foreign policy experts who lambasted Romney as “not ready for prime time” or unpresidential. The Republican candidate has since sought to move on from his remarks, although conservatives have defended their tone and substance. While many observers have argued the former governor did himself immense damage this week, President Obama faces difficult challenges of his own in the days ahead. Questions are already being asked about the security Stevens had at the time of his death, the structural weaknesses of post-Gaddafi Libya and the wisdom of the administration’s decision to engage with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Admin scrambles to clarify Obama Egypt remark

The White House has sought to clarify remarks President Obama made about America’s ties to Egypt following the violence in Cairo this week. In an interview with Spanish-language station Telemundo on Wednesday, Obama said while “we don’t consider them an enemy”, the US does not look upon Egypt as an ally. Obama’s Press Secretary Jay Carney later claimed the President’s words did not signify a downgrading of relations, and that his boss was speaking correctly as the US does not have an alliance treaty with Egypt. However, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was forced to admit that the Middle East nation is formally designated a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States, and that Obama’s words had not altered this arrangement. Obama’s comments have been viewed as an attempt to exert pressure on President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, although the national Republican Party has accused him of sending “mixed messages”.

Row over Prez’s intel briefings

Administration officials have denied Republican claims that President Obama ‘skipped’ daily intelligence briefings in his first term and in the run-up to the Libyan attack. National GOP organisations seized on scheduling records which show the Democrat has not always received in-person briefings, something former Vice President Dick Cheney attacked Obama over just before Tuesday’s events. The White House has responded by saying the President prefers to have his reports in writing, and discusses issues that arise from them in subsequent meetings. In a related development, The Republican nominee’s camp has revealed the former governor and his running mate are to receive intelligence briefings from next week onwards.

Amid furore, Romney shows his foreign policy hand

Slate’s Dave Weigel argues that while the Republican nominee’s denunciation of President Obama’s response to the embassy protests was ‘fact challenged’, it allowed him to sketch his view that the job of president is to ‘speak up for America’. Romney has long believed Obama spent an excessive amount of his time in office apologising for US power and accommodating extremist Muslims, and this week’s crisis allowed him to illustrate these arguments. This ‘accidental treatise’ on foreign policy from the former governor should not get lost in the day-to-day thrust of campaigning.

Presidential Race – Other News

Bernanke unveils further easing

The Federal Reserve has announced it is to pump more money into the US economy, placing America’s central bank at the centre of political debate as the election approaches. In a statement on Thursday, Fed Chair Ben Bernanke said new measures were needed given “grave concern” over joblessness, and revealed $40bn a month would be injected into the economy until the labour market improved. The Fed also published revised projections for growth and unemployment, estimating the rate of people out of work would not fall below 8% this year. Economic observers have broadly welcomed the news, as have stock markets around the world which rose significantly towards the end of the week. Political reaction has been more mixed, with Democrats optimistic about the potential of fresh monetary easing but many Republicans warning the Fed’s move will endanger its political independence. Mitt Romney has been more guarded in his assessment, although he branded the intervention a “sugar high” that would ultimately cost Americans. In other news, consumer confidence rose to its highest level in four months during August.

Campaigns feud over China

The presidential candidates have exchanged blows over outsourcing to China, with Romney faulting Obama for not honouring a commitment to take the People’s Republic “to the mat” on trade and the President’s camp accusing the Republican of profiting from investments in Chinese manufacturing companies. Romney, who criticised Obama in his weekly podcast, further released an ad alleging the Democrat has “failed to stop China’s cheating”. This resulted in a stern response from the Asian nation, as well as unease among free-trade Republicans and economic experts. Team Obama has responded by putting out a hard-hitting commercial that slams Romney for sending jobs to China during his time in the private sector, and deployed high-profile surrogates to spotlight the GOP nominee’s “hypocrisy”. Related coverage: [NYT]

Romney struggling in swing states

A new Wall Street Journal/Marist/NBC poll of key battleground states has shown the Republican nominee trailing the incumbent following the end of the Democratic National Convention. The survey, which was conducted before the Middle East crisis, found Obama leading Romney among likely voters by 7% in Ohio and by 5% in both Florida and Virginia. Neither candidate enjoyed an overwhelming advantage on the economy, with Obama narrowly besting Romney in the Buckeye State, fighting him to a tie in the Old Dominion and behind by 1% in the Sunshine State. Nationwide polls have also shown a dead heat when it comes to what was assumed to be a strength for the former governor. Fox News had the candidates splitting 46% apiece on who would better improve the economy and create jobs, while findings from CBS and The New York Times showed Obama 1% ahead on a similar question. Other polls: [Gallup Daily Tracker] [Reuters/Ipsos] [Yahoo News] [Survey USA – CO] [Philly Inquirer – PA] [UNH – NH] [EPIC/MRA – MI]

GOP nominee in debate expectations management

Mitt Romney has attempted to set expectations in the run-up to October’s presidential debates, following suggestions Barack Obama’s team have successfully lowered the bar for their candidate. In an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, the former governor implied he had performed poorly in practice matchups, while dismissing the idea he could deploy one-liners like those used by Ronald Reagan. Romney added Obama tends to “say things that aren’t true”, and said he would have to judge between correcting his rival’s statements and advancing his own agenda. During this interview, Romney additionally altered or forgot his position on Iran’s nuclear programme, admitting he like President Obama drew a ‘red line’ at the Islamic Republic obtaining a weapon. The former governor had previously supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s view that Tehran must not gain even nuclear weapons capability. The Romney campaign has revealed that Paul Ryan is now rehearsing for his debate with Joe Biden on 11th October. Eminent Republican lawyer and gay marriage advocate Theodore Olson has been serving as a stand-in for the Vice President.

Netanyahu refutes claims of interference

The Israeli Prime Minister has rejected allegations he is trying to influence the presidential contest with uncompromising rhetoric about Iran’s nuclear programme. During an interview with Israel’s most widely-read newspaper, the Likud leader said his main concern was the “centrifuges in Iran”, adding “if the Iranians had stopped…preparing a bomb until the US election was over, I would have been able to wait.” He subsequently took a swipe at the Obama administration’s attitude to Tehran, saying: “what if the United States doesn’t take action? That’s the question that must be asked.” Netanyahu’s comments come days after a Jewish Senator from President Obama’s party, Barbara Boxer, wrote an open letter accusing him of having “injected politics into one of the most profound security challenges of our time”. It also comes as Romney and his fellow Republicans criticise the President for declining to meet Netanyahu during the UN General Assembly this month. There is little sign that the rift between the US and Israel is harming Obama’s standing with American Jews: indeed, polling data from Gallup shows the Democrat leading his rival by 45% among the group. Netanyahu will make a controversially-timed appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press later today, during which he is expected to again demand ‘red lines’ from the US on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Republican contenders speak to social conservative summit

Both Romney and Congressman Ryan have addressed the Values Voters Summit in Washington, with the former governor telling the gathering of right-wing Christian activists he would be a president who shared their “commitment to conservative principles.” In a pre-recorded video message, Romney added a strong economy depended upon “strong families”, and proudly allied himself with those “who cling to their religion and to the Constitution”. His vice presidential candidate had earlier delivered a tubthumping speech in which he called for “moral clarity” in US foreign policy and strongly condemned the Obama administration’s abortion policy. Both Romney’s wife Ann and senior Catholic leader Cardinal Timothy Dolan turned downopportunities to speak at the summit amid opposition from civil rights groups.

WH report warns on ‘destructive’ defence cuts

The White House budget office has estimated automatic spending cuts due to take effect next year would be “deeply destructive” for national security, in addition to harming domestic investment and basic government services. In a report drawn up at the request of Congress, the Office of Management and Budget stated the US Department of Defence could shift funds in order to protect “critical military readiness”, but warned sequestration would mean a reduction in the readiness of non-deployed units, prevent investment in new equipment and damage services for military families. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have expressed alarm about the “crippling” effect of the cuts, although Democrats have accused them of being more concerned with safeguarding tax breaks for wealthy corporations. GOP vice presidential contender Paul Ryan meanwhile used the crisis in the Middle East to hit President Obama over the defence cutbacks, arguingthey would “breed weakness” abroad.

Kansas birther challenge withdrawn

A Kansas man who requested the state’s authorities investigate whether President Obama was a natural-born citizen and eligible to run in November has withdrawn his petition, citing “animosity and intimidation”. The bid to remove Obama from the ballot in his mother’s home state attracted national attention after local officials, including anti-immigration Romney supporter Kris Kobach, agreed to look at the objection.

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