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Theological Iron Curtain: As former Vermont governor Howard Dean has ridden the wave of anti-Iraq war sentiment to the front of the Democratic presidential pack, pro-war party stalwarts have had a rough time carving a position palatable to liberals.

The increasingly bogged-down occupation of Iraq may, however, prove to be a boon to at least one stalled campaign for the Democratic nomination. Senator Joseph Lieberman, taken to task chiefly by Dean for his hawkish stance on the war against terrorism, is flashing his party bona fides — in the heart of Republican literary territory — by calling for more butter in America’s heretofore gun-heavy foreign policy toward the Muslim world.

“In a pattern emerging in postwar Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, the United States takes forceful action to drain the swamps that breed terrorism, but fails to adequately seed the garden to enable peace, prosperity and democracy to take root and to prevent terrorism from returning,” the Connecticut senator writes in the fall issue of The National Interest, the neo-conservative answer to the journal Foreign Affairs. “Moderates are competing with extremists for control in the vacuum our military victories leave, with precious little support from the United States and its allies. Should the forces of fanaticism prevail in these postwar struggles, the theological iron curtain will undoubtedly descend, and behind it, terrorism will fester.”

Rhetorical flourishes aside, Lieberman proposes a “fundamental reassessment” of America’s Middle East policy. The backbone of his Arab policy is increased economic cooperation more closely aligned with “American values” than the regime-oriented policies of presidencies past and present. “Countries that prove themselves to be good global citizens,” he suggests, should be rewarded with trade preference programs.

But money alone, Lieberman warns, will not buy friendship with the Arab street. “In the Cold War, we understood that opening markets and opening minds go hand in hand,” he reminds readers. “We have to understand that now as well.”

The senator has quite a different picture of public diplomacy in mind than the Madison Avenue executive hired to sell the United States to the Muslim world after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Lieberman’s damage control begins with conveying to Muslim allies Washington’s extreme displeasure with the often-inflammatory messages emanating from state-run media and mosques in many Middle Eastern countries. He argues for cultivating local independent media sympathetic to the United States, rejuvenating foreign student-exchange programs and bolstering funding for the State Department presence overseas — a budget argument that may well come to haunt the Democratic senator if he moves his office from the Capitol to the White House.

For now, though, Lieberman is content crafting a centrist foreign policy, one that combines right-leaning strategic sensitivities with left-leaning diplomatic considerations.

“Over the long term,” he declares, “the fight for American security will require a parallel campaign to commend good by supporting freedom, tolerance, democracy and prosperity throughout the Muslim world. That is the best way to prevent a theological iron curtain from descending upon the Islamic world and suffocating the lives of millions of Muslims behind it and providing a base for terrorist attacks against us.”

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