WASHINGTON -- The third and final presidential debate Monday raised deeply troubling questions about President Obama's handling of foreign policy in the last four years -- especially on the question of keeping Americans safe in the midst of growing terrorism throughout the world, and resurgent jihadist attacks across the Middle East.
Former governor Mitt Romney entered the last debate with a preplanned strategy of calmly addressing the big, overriding issues that threaten our safety and those of our allies. He deliberately toned down both his delivery and his demeanor, as if to demonstrate his confidence that he had already beaten Obama decisively in the first debate, held his own in the second and would do well in the third.
And he clearly did that.
Romney's political advisers concluded after the second debate that, despite Obama's more aggressive attacks, he did not improve his poll numbers.
To the contrary, Romney saw his numbers climb to the point where the race was dead even going into Monday's final bout. He had erased the president's lead nationally and was leading or in a dead heat in the pivotal battleground states.
Heading into the last debate in Boca Raton, Fla., a Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll hours before showed Obama "no longer holds a clear advantage on who likely voters believe would better manage international affairs." Obama's eight-point advantage in September had plunged to three points.
If timing is everything in politics, this was arguably the worst time for Obama to debate his foreign policy -- in the midst of the growing controversy over the deadly terrorist attack on our consulate in Libya, where our ambassador and three others were killed. The president was being beaten up on the network and cable news programs for his administration's inept attempt to falsely describe the attack as part of a "spontaneous" protest over an anti-Islamic video on YouTube.
Soon after the fiery attack, news organizations were accurately describing what really happened. There was no protest. But at least 10 cars pulled up to the consulate and blasted their way into the compound, according to eyewitness accounts.
Yet five days after the attack, when it was clear what really happened, the White House sent Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to five network Sunday morning talk shows, peddling the fictitious "spontaneous protest" story line.
House Republicans held hearings with officials who said the Obama administration turned a deaf ear to pleas from Ambassador Christopher Stevens for increased security at the consulate. Senate hearings will also be held soon on an issue that shows no signs of going away.
Surprisingly, Romney didn't really bore into the bogus Benghazi story, preferring to focus on the larger failures of Obama over the past four years, when the Middle East has fallen into chaos and the world has become a much more dangerous place under his leadership.
The polls were still trending his way, and this time the news media were raising serious questions about the White House's role in the phony explanation to hide the fact that al-Qaida was behind the attack.
At the same time, it was clear that no matter how much Obama relentlessly attacked Romney in the debates, he drew no blood. Instead, the attacks made the president look desperate.
Maybe voters saw through Obama's political attacks on Romney as merely cover for his own failures to restore the economy to full health and vigor and to get America working again. Clearly that had not helped Obama with undecided voters and, ironically, may have helped Romney, who stuck to the larger issues on jobs, the economy and the crushing national debt that threatens our nation's solvency.
Romney went into the ring Monday night knowing that all he had to do was to forcefully make the case that Obama had not provided strong leadership in his handling of foreign policy and rebut the president's attacks with his best lines.
The Washington Post noted Tuesday that Obama "was harsh, even condescending at times toward Romney," saying that he knew his rival had "never executed foreign policy."
Romney at one point responded, "Attacking me is not an agenda for dealing with a dangerous world."
And the world is certainly far more dangerous in more places than it was when the former community organizer became president.
He came into presidency promising to sit down with the world's worst despots and attempt to reason with them. He began with what Romney said was his "apology tour" of Muslim countries, which did not include Israel, our closest ally in the region. The U.S., he told the mullahs, has been dismissive of the Middle East and he was going to change that.
But after four years, Iran is closer to building a nuclear bomb and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. "Now there are some 10,000 centrifuges spinning uranium, preparing to create a nuclear threat to the United States and to the world," Romney said.
At another point in the debate, Obama weakly insisted -- as he has many times before in this election -- that under his leadership al-Qaida is on the run.
Romney shot back, "Is al-Qaida on the run? No." The evidence is clear that he is right.
Al-Qaida in Iraq and its affiliates have moved into Syria to exploit the civil war there and infiltrate Syrian insurgent forces.
It has spread terrorist war across the region, in Lebanon, Nigeria, Mali, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere, and now in Benghazi.
There are increasing reports of a newly resurgent al-Qaida in Iraq, a post-Iraq withdrawal problem Obama never mentions.
Even here at home, there have been a growing number of attempted terrorist attacks and plots that were foiled by our intelligence and homeland security agents. What is alarming, however, is that these incidents are increasing.
If anything, al-Qaida's forces have grown over the last four years and have become more emboldened under the president's weak foreign policy, which is in disarray across the Middle East.
But all Obama could say in Monday night's debate was that everything's fine, al-Qaida is in retreat, re-elect me to another four years.