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Wednesday, June 07, 2006 | 10:38 PM

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A lot of centrist Democratic (as well as Republican) thinking on foreign policy in the past few decades has drifted towards 'realpolitik,' or 'realism,' the notion that conventional threats from states are the most pressing national security concern. They would reject the notions of threats from individuals, or, conversely, from overarching ideas like lack of democracy.

This way of doing things works well to continue whatever policies were in place before it, without messing up too badly - but it doesn't provide any kind of long-term strategy. The long-term strategy for the Cold War was created way back around 1948, with George Kennan's Long Telegram. He wrote that while the USSR had impressive military strength, it also had an ideology that was fundamentally opposed to ours. Rather than challenging them directly, he said we should simply seek to contain them, and they would eventually collapse under the weight of the inconsistencies in their own ideology.

The basis for Kennan's writings was anything but realist. A realist would have looked at the situation and concluded that the US and the USSR were equally matched, and probably wouldn't have even ventured a winner in this conflict, much less a strategy. But, more than fifty years later, it turned out that Kennan had made one of the most foresighted arguments, certainly in modern history. As it turned out, 'soft power' - the strength, purported not to exist by realists, derived from a better image on human rights and other issues - played a major role in the conflict.

Neoconservatives are right that democracy is better than other forms of government, but that's only part of the story. The other part will confound the realists even more: aside from civic functions that don't matter as much anyway, the Muslim world essentially acts as its own 'state.' It has a consistent 'foreign policy,' based on the principle of theocracy, which we need to fight in principle. There are Muslims who would fight the intrusion of any sort of religion into government, but they make up a small minority.

Our foreign policy should promote democracy, but in the secular world around the Muslim world, not in it. Even under the theory that our military has rescued Iraqis from a murderous dictator, we don't need to reward people with democracy who will then simply vote in a theocratic regime. Regime change someplace like Zimbabwe would be much more helpful for our cause, or, even better, less obtrusive aid through agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy or the like.

Some senators recently had the right idea with blocking shipping takovers from a Dubai company - now they need to extend this principle to democracy itself. In addition to national security, this will have electoral benefits: Reagan is the most memorable president since JFK, and both of them were very idealistic, each in their own way.

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