The last of this year's long slog of presidential debates on Monday night was about foreign affairs, that is, the state of the world and America's place in it. By the end, the essential question raised by the debate should have been clear: Which candidate is living in the real world we've all experienced the past four years? And which in a world of denial and excuse-making?
To ask such questions is to answer them. Just look around. The state of the world speaks for itself. And, as always, it is fraught with danger. And full of people who'll deny it. And who are ready to explain that we're doing just dandy. And about to do dandier.
In the president's world - any resemblance to the real one may be purely circumstantial - we're living in the best of all possible worlds, thanks to his guidance, wisdom, leadership and virtues in general. That's good to hear, just hard to believe.
In the world his presidential challenger inhabits, along with the rest of us, this administration continues to be caught by surprise as its foreign policy unravels. This administration has been repeatedly caught unaware and unprepared for emergencies. Worse, it is unwilling to admit its mistakes, which only assures that more unpleasant surprises are in store.
If there is a single event that summarizes this administration's unpreparedness, it is what happened just last month to the American consulate in Benghazi and what it revealed about the whole, unwinding fabric of American policy in the Middle East.
Revealing, too, is what didn't happen after Benghazi: an honest, far-reaching evaluation of the assumptions that policy is based on. Assumptions this president has operated on from the outset of his administration, when he made a grand apology tour speaking of how America had "shown arrogance and been dismissive, even divisive" in the world. Much as the president might like to deny those words now and take refuge in denial.
In the aftermath of the attack in Benghazi, Obama may have offered some lip service in general to this country's War on Terror when he spoke immediately after the attack on our consulate ("No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation . . ."), but he forbore to specify that the assault in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Indeed, his administration has studiously avoided any mention of a war on terror, preferring the euphemism "Overseas Contingency Operations."
For weeks after Benghazi, key members of this administration - like our ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice - continued to depict the violence in Benghazi as some kind of spontaneous demonstration against a stupid video ridiculing the prophet Mohammed. Why?
Not just for political reasons - to support the president's claim in this election that he's got the terrorists "on the run" - but for deeper, ingrained ideological reasons: It's all America's fault. If only we weren't so arrogant, if only we went around the world apologizing and extending the hand of friendship, our enemies would grasp it, and all would be well. It was going to be easy, like closing Guantanamo. The late Jeane Kirkpatrick had a phrase to sum up that whole attitude: Blame America First. And once again, it has led to violence.
To quote Mitt Romney in Monday night's debate: "The president began what I've called an apology tour of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness."
Monday night, the president responded to such concerns mainly by attacking his opponent, delivering one zinger after another. But zingers do not a foreign policy make. Or as Mitt Romney quietly responded at one point: "Attacking me is not an agenda." Indeed, even at this late point in this year's presidential campaign, Barack Obama doesn't seem to have one.