President Barack Obama bluntly told leaders in the Middle East and North Africa on Tuesday that they must help "keep our people safe" in the aftermath of violent demonstrations targeting American diplomatic posts in an apparent show of anger at an anti-Islam movie posted online.
Obama, in an interview taped for broadcast on the "Late Show" with David Letterman, called the video "offensive" and underlined that the U.S. government "had nothing to do with it" but underlined "that's never an excuse for violence."
"The message we have to send, I think, to the Muslim world is, we expect you to work with us to keep our people safe," the president said, one week after gunmen stormed the U.S. Consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi in an attack that claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador there and three aides. Obama's remarks were collected by pool reporter Anita Kumar of McClatchy Newspapers.
Obama telephoned leaders in the region over the past few days to press them on the issue of security at American diplomatic posts—host nations typically carry a portion of that burden. And he ordered special U.S. Marines units to some of the most vulnerable spots.
"Our first job is obviously to make sure that we're reinforcing security at these embassies, that we're fully investigating what happened and bringing these murderers to justice," the president said. "That's our number one priority."
Obama also pressed nations caught up in the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled authoritarian regimes around the region to embrace freedom of speech as a core democratic value.
"And in this part of the region, as they emerge, into a new form of government, part of what they're going to have to do is to recognize that democracy is not just casting a ballot," he said.
"It's respecting freedom of speech and tolerating people with different points of view, and it means that you've got to make sure that you never have any excuses for the kind of violence against innocents we saw last week," Obama said. "And that's a message that I've sent very clearly to the leaders of various countries, and we expect their full cooperation, because that's the only way the international order works."
Obama's comments about the video came after Mitt Romney, in a statement released late last Tuesday as details of the Benghazi attacks were still coming out, noted that an American had been killed and accused the president of siding with the attackers. The Republican standard-bearer pointed to a statement from the U.S. embassy in Egypt criticizing the anti-Islam film as evidence--but that statement, released before demonstrators stormed the embassy grounds, did not sympathize with the protesters.