WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A few weeks ago, a former CIA analyst and a national security adviser to the campaign of President Barack Obama lost a debate about the future of the Middle East to a blogger and a doctor.
The question being argued, during an episode of the debate program "Intelligence Squared," was whether Islamist democracies, of the sort that have emerged in the aftermath of the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, were better than the dictatorships that preceded them.
The dictatorships won the debate.
It's not a perfect analogue to the foreign policy discussion taking place in the current presidential campaign: for one thing, the Intelligence Squared audience was not a representative sample of the country, and the options facing Obama and his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are not nearly as stark.
But as the election turns toward foreign policy with Monday night's final debate in Boca Raton, Fla., there's reason to see an ominous sign for a president who has thrown his support behind the popular uprisings in countries like Egypt and Libya: Americans are worried about the discord in the Middle East, and the sort of complex explanations required to make sense of it increasingly do not satisfy.
"There's an enormous amount of fatigue with the Muslim Middle East, and people fear it, on both the left and on the right," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA analyst and now a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, a neoconservative think tank, who argued on behalf of democracy in the Intelligence Squared debate. (His partner was Brian Katulis, an informal Obama adviser and senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. Their opponents were the anti-Islamic watchdog Daniel Pipes, and Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor who runs the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.)
After a wave of protests at several American embassies in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, and the devastating attack on an American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, Obama has increasingly had to defend his policy of supporting the democratic transitions, despite the chaos some seem to have brought with them.
"It was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy, universal rights, a notion that people have to be able to participate in their own governance," Obama said last month on "60 Minutes."
But the American public is showing signs of growing restless. One recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans do not believe the Arab revolutions will improve life in those countries. Fifty-four percent agreed that it is more important to have stability than democracy.
More worrisome for the Obama campaign are the indications that his lead on foreign policy matters has been slipping somewhat, especially since the September attack in Benghazi. A recent Wall Street Journal poll gave the president an eight point lead over Romney, 46 percent to 38 percent, down seven points from the year before. In September, a Bloomberg poll found that Obama trailed Romney for the first time on who would better handle terrorism, 48 to 42.
So far, Romney has avoided creating a clear contrast between himself and Obama on many of the central pieces of the president's foreign policy. They both agree on the timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan, have similar suggestions for handling the crisis in Syria, and Romney has expressed broad support for the administration's tough tactics with Iran, even if he has rarely credited Obama for doing so.
Instead, the overarching distinction Romney has sought to draw in his past speeches on foreign policy has been one of tone: he speaks of "leadership" and "American exceptionalism," while painting Obama's foreign policy as riddled with "passivity," as he said in a recent speech at the Virginia Military Institute.
In this sense, the rising unrest in the Middle East has provided Romney with the opening that his specific policy prescriptions have not: it allows him to portray the president's foreign policy as "unraveling," as he put it in the second debate, and force Obama to come up with the convoluted answers.
"As the dust settles, as the murdered are buried, Americans are asking how this happened, how the threats we face have grown so much worse, and what this calls on America to do," Romney said during his VMI speech. "These are the right questions."
"One of the things a president is supposed to do is when you have these kinds of tremendously important things happening in the Middle East is to give to the American people a sense of what is happening, a way to go forward," said Eliot Cohen, a former Bush Administration official who now advises the Romney campaign, in a recent media briefing. "You haven't had any attempt to portray to the American people, What is going on here, How should we think about it, What should we do about it?"
They are questions that resist snappy answers. Obama's statement to "60 Minutes last month" defending the burgeoning democracies was actually part of a wonky, 200-word answer that navigated anti-American extremism and what he called "bumps in the road."
"I'd said even at the time that this is going to be a rocky path," Obama said.
Later, in a detailed response to a question from HuffPost on the same topic, Colin Kahl, a top Obama foreign policy surrogate, offered up many of the same points, and added that the revolution in the United States took decades, and a Civil War, before it settled down.
"At the end of the day, [the Romney campaign's] political argument is, 'Look at this scary place,' and 'If only you had tougher folks like the Republicans in charge, all these fears would go away,'" Kahl said. "But there's no substance to that argument."
In the Intelligence Squared debate, however, it wasn't necessarily the substantive arguments that won the day, Gerecht said. Instead, it was the audience's anxiety about the ongoing disarray, and the sort of worrisome questions about what the changes might bring that the Romney campaign has been raising.
"People are very skeptical about what's going to come from these revolutions," said Jamie M. Fly, the executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, and an occasional adviser to the Romney campaign.
"A lot of that is because we don't have a clear sense in terms of our policy right now, what our goals are, what we're doing to shape these developments and the forces that are emerging. And that's a problem for a lot of average Americans -- they look at these situations and think, 'We are just helpless. We don't think this administration has a real policy.'"