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The Final Debate: Who's Living in the Real World?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
The last of this year's long slog of presidential debates 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 you. As the ancient Romans might say, to put it in plain Latin, res ipsa loquitur. 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. Much like Voltaire's Candide, he looks around and concludes there is nothing to be improved on. Once again the United States is in control of developments. 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. Caught unawares, repeatedly, this administration has been unprepared for emergencies and, worse, unwilling to admit its mistakes, which only assures that more unpleasant surprises are in store. For how correct mistakes and misassumptions if they're never recognized?

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, to our ambassador and three other dedicated envoys there, 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 re-assessment 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 it now.

Just as he did in the aftermath of the attack in Benghazi. Yes, he 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 as a reflection of a deeper, ideological worldview: If only we weren't so arrogant, all would be well. If only we went around the world apologizing and extending the hand of friendship, our enemies would grasp it. It would all be so easy. Like closing Guantanamo.

The late Jeane Kirkpatrick, our ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration, had a phrase to sum up that whole attitude: Blame America First. And once again, it has led to violence, just as the policy called appeasement did in an earlier era.

The president continues to insist our alliances are in great shape. Ri-i-ight. Tell it to the Poles, who had the rug pulled out from under them when long-agreed-upon plans for a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe were canceled by this administration. Tell it to the Israelis, who know very well with what distaste our president deals with their leader. Tell it the leaders of Green Revolution in Iran, those who survived.

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. Then when there were dissidents in the streets of Teheran, the Green Revolution, holding signs saying, 'Is America with us?' the president was silent. I think they noticed that as well."

The world certainly noticed. Specifically, it noticed the absence of the moral authority America has shown again and again as one tyranny after another has arisen to threaten the peace of the world. And as the mullahs in Iran, their centrifuges still spinning madly, do now. Does anyone believe the next four years will be any different in that regard from the last four?

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.

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