The third and final presidential debate Monday raised deeply troubling questions about President Obama's handling of foreign policy during the past four years. This was especially true on the question of keeping Americans safe in the midst of growing terrorism throughout the world and resurgent jihadist attacks across the Middle East.
Mitt Romney entered the last debate with a planned 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 Mr. Obama decisively in the first debate, held his own in the second and would do well in the third. He clearly did that.
Mr. Romney's political advisers concluded after the second debate that despite Mr. Obama's more aggressive attacks, he did not improve his poll numbers. To the contrary, Mr. 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 Mr. Obama "no longer holds a clear advantage on who likely voters believe would better manage international affairs." Mr. Obama's 8-point advantage in September had plunged to 3 points.
If timing is everything in politics, this was arguably the worst time for Mr. Obama to debate his foreign policy -- in the midst of the growing controversy over the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya where our ambassador and three others were killed in a terrorist attack. 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 spurred by 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 U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to five Sunday morning TV 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 J. Christopher Stevens for increased security at the consulate. Senate hearings will be held soon on the issue, which shows no signs of going away.
Surprisingly, Mr. Romney didn't really bore into the bogus Benghazi story, preferring to focus on the larger failures of Mr. 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 Qaeda was behind the attack.
At the same time, it was clear that no matter how much Mr. Obama relentlessly attacked Mr. Romney in the debates, he drew no blood. Instead, the attacks made the president look desperate.
Maybe voters saw through Mr. Obama's political attacks on Mr. Romney as merely cover for his own failures to restore the economy to full health and vigor and get America working again. Clearly, this had not helped the president with undecided voters and, ironically, may have helped Mr. Romney, who stuck to the larger issues of jobs, the economy and the crushing national debt that threatens our nation's solvency.
Mr. Romney went into the ring Monday night knowing that all he had to do was to forcefully make the case that Mr. Obama has 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 Mr. Obama "was harsh, even condescending at times toward Romney," saying that he knew his rival had "never executed foreign policy."
Mr. Romney at one point responded, "Attacking me is not an agenda for dealing with a dangerous world."
The world is certainly far more dangerous in more places than it was when the former community organizer became president.
He took office promising to sit down with the world's worst despots and attempt to reason with them. He began with what Mr. Romney said was his "apology tour" of Muslim countries, which did not include Israel, our closest ally in the region. The United States, he said, had been dismissive of the Middle East and he was going to change that.
However, 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," Mr. Romney said.
At another point in the debate, Mr. Obama weakly insisted -- as he has many times before in this election season -- that under his leadership, al Qaeda is on the run.
Mr. Romney shot back, "Is al Qaeda on the run? No." The evidence is clear that he is right.
Al Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliates have moved into Syria to exploit the civil war there and infiltrate Syrian insurgent forces. They have spread their terrorist war across the region, in Lebanon, Nigeria, Mali, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere, and now in Benghazi, Libya.
There are increasing reports of a newly resurgent al Qaeda in Iraq, a post-Iraq withdrawal problem Mr. 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 Qaeda's forces have grown during the past four years and have become more emboldened under the president's weak foreign policy, which is in disarray across the Middle East.
But all Mr. Obama could say in Monday night's debate was that everything's fine, al Qaeda is in retreat and Americans should re-elect him to another four years.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.
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