Presidential debates usually are overrated, but the 2004 foreign-policy contest was informative.  Although John Kerry is not an attractive personality, he knows the issues.  George W. Bush knows his lines.

Americans undoubtedly were relieved when the President declared, “I know that Osama bin Laden attacked America.”  Apparently, he has learned something while in office.

To his credit, the President opposes sending troops into the Sudan, questions the usefulness of the United Nations, and  rejects U.S. membership in the International Criminal Court.  The President, however, does not recognize the mess he has created in Iraq.  He will not acknowledge that his arguments for invading Iraq were erroneous.  And he will never, ever admit that he has made a mistake.

Indeed, it is hard to know what Bush really believes.  The President offered slogans rather than facts.  For instance, he repeatedly insisted that Kerry could not serve as commander in chief after saying that Iraq was “the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place.”  That is, even when it becomes evident that a war was based on falsehoods, the peace was bungled, and the conflict was creating more terrorists, a president must claim the contrary.  Americans must not think that their rulers have erred.  It’s North Korean-style governance.

Kerry danced around the challenge of justifying a continued occupation while highlighting the administration’s mistakes.  “I can do better,” he said, without inspiring much hope that he actually could do better.

The President continually relied on platitudes.  We are “making progress,” he chirped, even as attacks and casualties climb.  We are spreading “freedom around the world,” he enthused, without showing where liberty was flourishing.

Equally disturbing was the President’s conflation of Iraq and the “War on Terror.”  “We were attacked,” he said.  Kerry responded: “Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us.  Osama bin Laden attacked us.”

Moreover, observed Kerry, Bin Laden was using “the invasion of Iraq in order to go out to people and say [that] America has declared war on Islam.”  An uncomprehending Bush replied, “Osama bin Laden isn’t going to determine how we defend ourselves.”  Apparently the President doesn’t believe he needs to take into account the likely consequences of his decisions.

President Bush, who otherwise posed as a tough-minded unilateralist, praised the vast coalition that he has assembled (the one including the 65-man Albanian contingent; the Filipino, Spanish, and Thai units that have gone home; and the Japanese and South Korean soldiers who won’t fight).  He indignantly chided Senator Kerry for “denigrating” our allies, leaving unanswered the latter’s observation that “we’re now 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq and 90 percent of the costs.”

Kerry also won the argument over Iran and North Korea.  True, he tried a bit too hard to impress, talking about his various “plans” almost as often as the President lauded his own “hard” decisions.

Nevertheless, Kerry pointed out that both Iran and North Korea have been surging ahead with their nuclear programs while the Bush administration has been sacrificing American lives trying to create democracy on the Euphrates.  Kerry also recognized that China could apply pressure whether or not she was formally sitting at the table: “Just because the President says it can’t be done, that you’d lose China, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.  I mean, this is the President who said ‘There were weapons of mass destruction’ and ‘mission accomplished,’ said we could fight the war on the cheap—none of which were true.”

In the end, President Bush played the leadership card.  “I’ve shown the American people I know how to lead,” he declared, ignoring the mess into which he has led us.

Here, too, Senator Kerry surprisingly got to the nub of the issue: “This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment.  And judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America.”  Indeed, added Kerry, Bush invaded “without a plan to win the peace,” even sending “troops to war without the body armor that they need.”

The President’s response to these devastating charges?  “The way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that I’ve just outlined”—a plan that manifestly is not working.

It didn’t take the Florida debate to demonstrate that America is ill-served by a choice limited to George W. Bush and John Kerry.  The latter’s policy reversals are legion, even as he trends left.  What will he do if the allies he intends to corral behind us tell us to clean up our own mess?

President Bush’s failings, however, are far worse.  “I see on the TV screens how hard it is” in Iraq, he allowed.  Alas, he apparently doesn’t watch enough TV to recognize how serious things really are.

Nevertheless, the President claimed: “Of course we are doing everything we can to protect America.  I wake up every morning, talking about how to protect us.”  He probably is doing everything he can think of to protect America.  That’s the problem.