NEW YORK President Barack Obama will use an address Tuesday at the United Nations to press back against Republican criticism that he’s mishandling the U.S. relationship with Israel, two weeks after tumult in the Arab world thrust his handling of foreign policy into the presidential campaign.
White House officials said Obama would use the speech before the world body to denounce the violence that led to the deaths of four Americans in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, as well as to underscore that the U.S. is united with Israel when it comes to ensuring that Iran not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon.
Coming 42 days before the election, Obama’s speech is likely to be aimed at a domestic audience as much as an international one, but White House Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted: “This is not a campaign speech.”
Republican challenger Mitt Romney has sought to raise doubts about whether Obama has made the world a safer place, criticizing Obama for not meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during Netanyahu’s trip to the U.S. for the U.N. meeting. Republicans noted that Obama was taking time to appear on a daytime talk show instead of meeting with world leaders. Republicans also seized on remarks that Obama made in a separate interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that they said “dismissed” the deaths of the four Americans as "bumps in the road" and said that Obama in the same interview likened Netanyahu’s concerns about Iran to “noise.”
“There’s a continuing pattern of throwing Israel under the bus,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters on a conference call organized by the Romney campaign.
Carney said Obama’s remarks about “bumps in the road” referred to upheavals in the region as populations there seek to shed decades of dictatorial rule, and he called Republican criticism “desperate and offensive.”
“Obviously in these countries there are huge challenges, huge obstacles to the kinds of change that the people in these countries are demanding,” Carney said. He said there was a “rather desperate attempt to grasp at words and phrases here to find political advantage. And in this case that’s profoundly offensive.”
Obama also faced criticism for not scheduling a single meeting with a foreign leader during his 24-hour trip to the U.N. but finding time Monday afternoon to tape an interview with ABC’s daytime chat show “The View.” He held 13 bilateral meetings with foreign leaders at last year’s United Nations General Assembly.
Carney didn’t offer a reason for the lack of meetings, but he said Obama has held “extensive consultations” with world leaders since taking office. He noted that Obama “just in the last few weeks” had talked with the leaders of Egypt, Israel, Yemen, Turkey and Libya, and that those talks would continue.
Romney campaign officials said the lack of meetings suggested Obama has been disengaged on foreign policy – an area in which the Democratic president has had a decided edge, particularly after the death of Osama bin Laden.
Republicans seized on Obama’s remarks in the “60 Minutes” interview when he said he’d “block out any noise that’s out there” when he was asked about pressure from Netanyahu.
Carney said the two leaders won’t be in New York at the same time. He noted that they’d recently talked for more than an hour and insisted that they are both committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“That’s the president’s policy,” Carney said, adding that Obama has sought an international consensus against Iran, along with sanctions and a “firm commitment that every option available to him remains on the table in dealing with this challenge.”
Obama and Romney are each scheduled to address former President Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday.
It’s unclear how much attention voters are giving to foreign policy, though analysts caution that continued unrest in the Middle East could hurt Obama. Indeed, the administration in recent days has alerted reporters to what Carney called a “remarkable demonstration” in Libya against the militias that Libyans hold responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate.
A nationwide poll conducted after the attack in Libya found that 60 percent of voters cited foreign policy as “very important” to their vote – but that far more cited the economy and jobs. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 87 percent of registered voters cited the economy as a priority; foreign policy was tied with terrorism as the eighth priority.
David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
Email: Lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter @lesleyclark