There are dead Americans, an al-Qaeda flag flying above an embassy, and American flags and buildings burning. This is chaos. This is not the picture of an America more respected in the world. This is America cowering, uncertain what embassy will be hit next.

Vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) grasped this on Friday. This is what he had to say in a speech to the Value Voters Summit:

He is painting the picture, one beyond spin and incapable of being ignored.

There is a reason Obama wanted no messy foreign involvement in an election year, why he foot-dragged on Syria, rushed the withdrawal schedule in Afghanistan and tried to restrain the Israelis from striking Iran. Incumbent presidents, especially liberal ones trying too sell huge defense cuts, don’t do well when Americans are watching horrible images like the ones we’ve seen since Tuesday. They want to know that the president is in command and the world is not spinning out of control. As Obama said in his weekly radio address, the images abroad are “disturbing.” Indeed.

It was the images and the calendar (day 55, day 56 . . .) that helped do President Jimmy Carter in. And while there are, thank heavens, no hostages, the images continue, and the facts will come out. Why were we unprepared? Hey, whose idea was it to give the Egyptian government a billion dollars? Why does the president (at least his press secretary) buy into the idea this is a reaction to “defamation against Islam” and not the same expression of jihadist extremism that three presidents have confronted?

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) let it rip, attacking Obama for the weak initial response from the Cairo embassy. (“ ‘The statement, as I understand it, was issued before the news of Libya came out. It was a very weak statement entirely on the part of the Embassy that does speak for the United States’ . . . . McCain noted the statement was later withdrawn, which he said proved it was the wrong message to send out.”)

The New York Times wants to know about the president’s briefing “habits.” The Times reports: “By August, he received [his daily presidential briefing] . . . in person at the White House 10 times. By the time of the attack in Libya and protests in Egypt, he had gone a week without an in-person briefing, since Sept. 5. ” If he had met in person, maybe someone would have asked a question or explored a topic a little longer. Maybe Obama would have picked up on a lack of preparedness. We’ll never know because he thought it was a waste of time to meet every day.

Reporters are investigating ongoing security issues at our embassies. (“While the State Department has responded to some of the criticisms leveled by congressional oversight bodies and its own internal watchdog, its Diplomatic Security (DS) office recently acknowledged it lacked the funding for some recommended improvements, such as security training, and was instead looking for workarounds.”) As Michael Rubin (no relation) put it: “Congress was correct to investigate the intelligence failures that colored the George W. Bush administration decision to intervene in Iraq. Intelligence failures under the Obama administration may be different, but their implications could be just as profound. Perhaps it is time — in a serious, non-partisan way — to examine why it is that the CIA and State Department continue to be caught so flat-footed in the Arab world.”

On Thursday the State Department spokeswoman told reporters, “What I can say is that, as we did with all of our missions overseas in advance of the September 11th anniversary, and as we do every year, we did evaluate the threat stream and we determined that the security at Benghazi was appropriate for what we knew. But I can’t speak to any other diplomatic conversations that might have gone on with the Libyans.” That is going to be the subject of intense investigation.

Apparently, the clues were hiding in plain sight. The Israelis tried to warn us about grwoing radicalism. Something is very wrong if we didn’t take prior attacks as a warning. (“While the Obama administration says there was no ‘actionable intelligence’ foreshadowing the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, there were at least four attacks on diplomatic and western targets in Benghazi leading up to the murder of the U.S. ambassador.”)

Even on the most basic level the State Department and the White House are at adds. On Friday Jay Carney told reporters that the riots were all about the anti-Muslim film. The same day the State Department spokesman cautioned: “Well, obviously, we’re going to continue to analyze the motivations of these protestors. What we can tell you is that in all of these countries where we’ve seen these protests, we have also seen — moving on social media, moving on television or other things that people watch — quite a bit of concern, condemnation, anger about this video. And it seems to have been the spark for people coming into the streets, but I can’t obviously get into the heads of these protestors.” So where is Carney getting his information, or is he just making it up as he goes along?

Surely there is someone in the administration who understands what is going on. Perhaps the Post editorial board can be of some help in unmuddying the waters. “Militant Islamic movements . . . seize on pretexts such as the anti-Muslim film to mobilize against their political enemies.” It is symptomatic of the moral and policy confusion in the Obama team that this simple truism can’t be consistently stated. (In his weekly radio address Obama gave no indication there was any other spark for the attacks other than the film. Does he not think radical Islamism is still a problem, quite apart from whatever the pretext of the day may be?)

The media can try to make this about Mitt Romney. But the president is the one on whose shoulders the responsibility rests. He doesn’t seem presidential jetting off to Las Vegas in the midst of a crisis or pointing the finger at a film, when the al-Qaeda flag is flying. Everything he did and didn’t do is now relevant and becomes part of the biggest story out there. Sorry, mainstream media, even more important than an Ohio poll in September and an already faded convention bounce.

As ABC News points out, the president’s lack of attention to foreign affairs now hangs over his head:

His critics say President Obama has been too passive, too willing to see the moderates who drove the Arab Spring — from Egypt, to Libya and certainly in Syria, where an estimated 30,000 have died in a de facto civil war — die for their cause or else be subsumed by Islamist groups who’ve stepped into the post-revolutionary breach.

In the place of a cohesive strategy or “doctrine” to guide his response, they say, the president has created a vacuum that pulls in the region’s most destructive forces.

So maybe Obama will come through with flying colors, boasting that State Department and the intelligence agencies did everything right. Maybe he will beat back the notion that his overly solicitous posture toward our foes had nothing to do with events. McCain sure thinks that is the nub of the problem:

“What this is all about is American weakness and the president’s inability to lead,” McCain said. “Iraq is dissolving. Our relations with Israel are at a tension point. I’d like to see the president of the U.S. speak out for once for the 20,000 people that are being massacred in Syria. There’s an absence of American leadership in the region and they are very weak,” McCain said. . . . Overall, he said, “there’s a belief in the Middle East the United States is weak and withdrawing, and that’s why you’re seeing various countries and their leaders reacting because they have to live in the neighborhood, and they believe the United States is leaving and this leadership is in a vacuum.”

Somehow, though, I think that Obama is going to have a tougher time of it than his media spin squad insists. There are, after all, dead Americans, burnt flags and buildings, and a region in turmoil. Whatever he did sure didn’t work.