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Author says foreign policy needs finesse, not force

John Stempel insists that the title of his new book, Common Sense and Foreign Policy, is not an oxymoron, even if it seems like it lately.

In fact, the veteran U.S. diplomat, senior professor and former director of the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce is optimistic that President-elect Barack Obama can repair some of the damage wrought by the Bush Administration's so-called neoconservatives.

"What will definitely be gone is American unilateralism — the idea that we're so powerful we can do whatever we want," said Stempel, who is among 220 authors who will be signing books Saturday at the Kentucky Book Fair in the Frankfort Convention Center. "The neoconservatives will be anathema — as they deserve to be."

At a recent signing party for the book (The Clark Group, $29.95), Stempel discussed what he thinks is needed to repair America's relationships around the world. Mainly, he said, leaders must stop the "with us or against us" bluster of the Bush years and return to traditional principles of international cooperation and diplomacy — "the art of letting the other fellow have it your way."

Stempel's book is a concise tutorial on foreign policy, filled with common sense. He even seems to have discovered a secret that few writers like to admit: The shorter the book, the more likely people are to read it.

Stempel defines common sense in foreign policy as "creating balanced and moderate policies and carrying them out in a competent and consistent manner to maximize their effectiveness."

In Stempel's view, American foreign policy ran off the road after Sept. 11, 2001, because radical Islamic terrorism was a threat our top leaders didn't understand and weren't prepared to confront.

Stempel, whose 23-year U.S. Foreign Service career included five years in Iran before and during the 1979 Islamic revolution, said the neoconservatives brushed aside people in government who had expertise in Middle East politics and culture and made decisions based on ideology. The result: We bungled the job in Afghanistan, let Osama bin Laden escape and started an unnecessary war in Iraq that fueled terrorism.

But Stempel, a self-described "radical moderate" who served both Democratic and Republican administrations, notes that arrogant cluelessness is bipartisan. Remember Kennedy's Bay of Pigs? Johnson's Vietnam? Carter's Iran hostage crisis?

In addition to radical Islamic terrorism, Stempel notes that the world is full of challenges and potential crises, including North Korea and the relationship between India and Pakistan.

So what should we do?

America is the world's acknowledged military superpower. But, Stempel notes, nobody likes a bully. By flaunting its power, the United States has made itself unpopular with friends and foes alike. Obama's current popularity overseas offers a window to start repairing the damage.

The U.S. government would have far more influence if officials worked harder to understand the motivations and dynamics of other cultures. "We especially need moderate allies in the Islamic world to refute and tamp down radicals," he said.

He notes that, when Europe and Japan faced terrorist threats in the 1960s and 1970s, they brought them to heel through international cooperation, good intelligence and police work, not by declaring a "war" on terrorism.

"We currently treat terrorism as a concrete enemy, not as the tactic it truly is," Stempel writes. "We emphasize the military response out of proportion to the necessary police and political efforts that would bring in more allied help. We are too focused on the 'American Empire' concept."

Stempel thinks we should pay more attention to international public opinion and seek to understand the motivations of other governments, cultures and religions rather than just dismissing them as irrational or evil. "Awareness of the new and complex is essential for effective common sense," Stempel writes.

And he suggests we follow the advice of former Baltimore Oriole manager Earl Weaver: "It's what you learn after you think you know everything that really counts."