WASHINGTON // Widening an already deeply divisive American presidential race, Republicans are accusing Barack Obama's administration of weakness in the face of foreign attack in its response to deadly protests outside an US diplomatic mission in Libya and demonstrations at the US Embassy in Cairo.
The White House has countered that Republicans are trying to capitalise politically and that Mitt Romney, their candidate for president, has shown himself a foreign policy novice.
Yesterday, Republican senator John McCain joined in, saying Mr Obama was pursuing "a feckless foreign policy".
Mr McCain, who lost to Mr Obama in the 2008 presidential election, said Tuesday's attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that saw the killing of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya, showed "a belief in the Middle East that the United States is withdrawing" from the world.
His comments came after Mr Romney and his campaign had been criticised for being too hasty to question the US government's response to Middle East protests.
An hour before news broke that J Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, had been killed, Reince Preibus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, criticised the administration for defending protestors storming the US embassy in Cairo.
Mr Preibus was referring to a US Embassy statement that had condemned the makers of the Innocence of Muslims - the movie that has caused widespread offence in the Muslim world - as "misguided individuals" out to "hurt the religious feelings of Muslims".
"Obama sympathises with attackers," Mr Preibus tweeted. "Sad and pathetic."
The problem: the embassy statement had been released before any protests, rendering Mr Preibus's argument specious.
His tweet also came shortly before Stevens' death was announced, making Mr Romney's campaign appear to have broken an unspoken rule of US politics to put partisanship aside when Americans are under attack abroad.
But rather then take a step back, Mr Romney went on the offensive.
"It's never too early for the government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values", Mr Romney said in a statement on Wednesday.
The Cairo embassy statement - which Mr Romney blamed on the Obama administration - had been "disgraceful" and constituted an "apology for our values", a common accusation the Romney campaign has levelled against Mr Obama since he issued an apology earlier in the year for the accidental burning by US soldiers of copies of the Quran in Afghanistan.
However, Mr Obama shot straight back.
"Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," the US president said.
"As president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that; it's important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts."
Even Republican colleagues did not seem certain about Mr Romney's timing.
Peter King, the Republican legislator from New York who held congressional hearings into home-grown Muslim extremism,said he "probably would have waited 12 or 24 hours and put out a more comprehensive statement".