Yesterday provided a clear contrast between two national figures’ ability to think and communicate clearly on national security. One was a mini-disaster and one was an impressive display.

On the disaster front, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is a walking advertisement for abolishing the DNI position. He’s called the Muslim Brotherhood a “largely secular” group. He was unaware of the London bombing when queried by ABC’s Diane Sawyer. And he was back at it yesterday.

When asked during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee which countries posed the greatest “mortal threat” to the United States, he gave a peculiar answer: “Certainly, the Russians still have a very formidable nuclear arsenal, which does pose potentially a mortal threat to us.” He added, “I don’t think they have the intent to do that.” He also listed China: “So they too do pose, potentially from a capabilities standpoint, a threat to us as a mortal threat.” It was a disturbing view, causing Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to roundly criticize him. Graham considered this gaffe a “third strike,” and grounds for his resignation.

Muddled as his syntax was, it was Clapper’s analysis that was most alarming. He conflated the possession of military hardware with “threat” and specifically denied that Iran and North Korea (which might carry out threats to the U.S. homeland) were mortal threats. Obama administration officials on damage control later in the day confirmed he was only talking about military capabilities. But does Clapper understand the difference between military capacity and threats? (France and India have nuclear weapons, too, so are they “threats”?)

But that wasn’t the worst of it. On Libya, he proclaimed that Gaddafi would “prevail.” One wonders if this is what the Obama team is saying behind closed doors. If so, it is a sickening replay of its dismissal of the Green Revolution in 2009.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ignored the question when asked about Clapper’s comments. Press secretary Jay Carney accused Graham of misrepresenting Clapper’s views. Regardless of what Clapper meant, it is obvious that he has a serial communications problem. Given his role, that would seem to be a fatal flaw, but the president is standing behind him.

Contrast the cloud of confusion created by Clapper with presidential candidate-in-waiting Tim Pawlenty. As he has been of late, Pawlenty was forceful and precise on national security. Speaking in New Hampshire, Pawlenty went after Obama’s approach to foreign policy, as Politico reported:

“I’m not overly concerned about our popularity ratings in Europe or the Middle East,” Pawlenty said at a presidential house party in his honor. “What I am concerned about is, is this nation secure.” . . .

Taking the mic at this enthusiastic, wall-to-wall people forum, Pawlenty received plenty of applause for his “pro-American, pro-security, pro-defense” stance on foreign policy. And a sea of heads nodded in agreement, as Pawlenty took the opportunity to brag about his five trips to Iraq, three visits to Afghanistan, and Asian and Latin American trade missions. . . .

Calling Libyan Mumammar Gadhafi “a confirmed terrorist, a psychopath,” Pawlenty said Obama should be more aggressive in pushing for a no-fly zone over Libyan skies.

“I would be more forward leaning than that,” he said.

The former Minnesota governor had harsher words for Obama’s handling of the crisis in Egypt, charging the administration should have foreseen aging ruler Hosni Mubarak’s eventual fall from power.

“What was the plan between an 82-year-old dictator and chaos?” he asked.

He wasn’t asked about Clapper’s remarks, but given Pawlenty’s comments, I am certain he wouldn’t name Russia and China as our most serious threats or declare Libya’s revolution to be a lost cause.

It says volumes that a governor (albeit one who has traveled more than most) is more impressive on national security than the Obama official in charge of national security. And it reminds us that domestic issues won’t be the only topic in the 2012 presidential race.