Dick Cavett got it about right when he wrote the other day, “There’s something almost funny in the idea that she [Palin] is being speedily stuffed, Strasbourg-goose-style, with knowledge she should have had before she was selected.” Judging from her first interview, when she clearly didn’t recognize the term “The Bush Doctrine,” Palin needs more time and more stuffing.

Has she been paying that little attention to world events? Maybe. Do Americans care that a potential Vice-President is unable to identify the term that has been the guiding principle of the most colossal foreign policy disaster in US history–taking the lives of thousands of Americans (and now, perhaps, her son’s precious life), the lives of more than 100,000 Iraqis and which may ultimately cost this country several trillion dollars. I hope so.

But Palin’s cluelessness should elicit more than anxiety, concern, snickering– or disgust that McCain was so cynical and reckless in selecting her. Not that those reactions aren’t warranted. But for those who care about this country’s security, for those who put country above partisan gutter politics, what’s key is that we repair the damage the misconceived Bush doctrine has inflicted on our security and engagement with the world. Palin may not have known what the Doctrine meant. But her answers revealed, clearly, that she and her running mate will inflict more damage and destruction on our country and world with their hyper-militarized, pugilistic and atavistic Cold War policies, temperament and mindset.

So, the first order is to defeat these Republicans. Yet, as we work hard in these next days and night, we must also be honest about the work demanded to craft a sane security policy because our political system continues to evade the challenge of finding an exit from the “war on terror.” At a time when we need a coherent alternative to the Bush doctrine and an alternative vision of what this country’s role in the world should be, we see both parties calling for intensifying the “war on terror” –even for increasing the size of the military, and for expanding its ability to go places (Afghanistan, Pakistan) and do things.

Obama has spoken, well, of “ending the mindset” that took us into Iraq. But in recent months, he hasn’t fleshed out what that means. It may well be that this campaign, with Republicans desperate to make it a referendum on swine and lipstick, moose and baby bumps, and not on the ruinous policies of these last 7 years, doesn’t leave room for fundamental questions of life and death, war and peace. Who’s asking, for example: Won’t a war without end do more to weaken our security and democracy than seriously address the threats and challenges ahead?

Witness the collateral damage already done to our democracy. This Administration has used the “war” as justification for almost anything–unlawful spying on Americans, illegal detention policies, hyper-secrecy, equating dissent with disloyalty and condoning torture. A Democratic Administration would likely rein in the excesses of these abuses; but war–especially one without end–always corrodes a nation’s democratic values.

The Administration has also justified the expansion of America’s military capacity–over 700 bases in more than sixty countries, annual military budgets topping $500 billion — as necessary to counter the threat of Islamic extremism and to fight the “war on terror.” What too few politicians are willing to say is that combating terrorism–a brutal, horrifying tactic–is not a “war” and that military action is the wrong weapon. Illegality and immorality aside, it simply doesn’t succeed.

A recent report by the conservative Rand Corporation concludes that the whole notion of the “war on terror” has been counter-productive—inflating our enemies, providing them with global credibility, isolating us from allies. Yes, terrorism does pose a threat to national and international security that can never be eliminated. But there are far more effective (and ethical) ways to advance US security than a forward-based and military-heavy strategy of intrusion into the Islamic world. Indeed, the failed Iraq War demonstrated anew the limits of military power.

Fighting terror requires genuine cooperation with other nations in policing and lawful and targeted intelligence work; smart diplomacy; withdrawal of support for oppressive regimes that generate hatred of the US; and real pressure to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and justice and a secure state for the Palestinians. (There are other effective means of combating terrorism; what is important is that they are harnessed and coordinated so as to provide a true alternative to hyper-military ventures.)

It is also worth remembering that military invasion and occupation, and crusades masquerading as foreign policy, divert precious resources from real security. Five years ago, the doubts and warnings about military action in Iraq were brushed aside (including those clearly and consistently expressed by the Nation). Now that reality has confirmed the argument, isn’t it time to act on the knowledge?

Alongside the get-out-of-Iraq debate, the political system needs a parallel debate that lays out how we will exit this “long war” — which is a formula for unlimited militarization and recurring wars. (As an industrial project for the arms industry, it could be even more open-ended than the Cold War.) We need a debate that confronts the danger of inflating a very real, but limited threat of terrorism into an open-ended global war, to be fought simultaneously on countless obscure battle fronts, large and small, visible and secret.

Major political leaders in both parties continue to buy into a view of US global supremacy–the “indispensable nation” scenario. They were silent when the Pentagon opened a new “Africa Command” to hunt down Islamists on that continent. Nor they did object when CIA gunships bombed villages earlier this year in Somalia. When Bush announced intentions to increase Army troop strength by 90,000, Democrats boasted it was their idea first.

To what end? These new troops won’t’ be available for Iraq. Are they for the next war or occupation in Afghanistan? The delusion of military power is deeply rooted. Tragically, Afghanistan might well become the place where the dreams and hopes of the Obama Administration are buried–if precious resources he needs to deal with our problems at home are drained in occupation and war.

We would do better–both in addressing the danger of a wider sectarian war with failing regimes in the Middle East, and in combating terrorism–to reduce the heavy US military and geopolitical footprint in the region. That means withdrawing US forces from Iraq and organizing regional diplomacy, including with Iran and Syria, to contain the civil war from spreading to other countries in the region. It would mean addressing the legitimate grievances that arouse the passions of many in the Islamic world, especially Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. And it would mean changing the conversation with the people of the Arab and Islamic worlds from the danger of extremism to the promise of more economic opportunity.

A purposeful opposition must form to rethink America’s role in the world. There are large and fateful questions to confront: What kind of country does the US want to be in the 21st century? Republic or Empire? Global leader or global cop? Where, as Sherle Schwenninger asked in the Nation‘s pages a few years ago, “is the America that is less one of warrior and preacher/proselytizer and more one of architect and builder?” How can America act like an imperial power in a post-imperial world? Much can be accomplished by focusing on the questions that conventional opinion ignores. And starting the discussion/debate now can help establish new terms and limits for the next president elected in 2008.

Concretely, (and don’t hold your breath waiting for Charlie Gibson to ask the Presidential candidates about this) Congress should be pushed to take legislative action to renounce the Bush doctrine of “preventive war” enunciated before he invaded Iraq. As The Nation warned in our “Open Letter to the Members of Congress” on the eve of the 2002 war resolution vote, “the decision to go to war has a significance that goes far beyond the war….It declares a policy of military supremacy over the entire earth– an objective never attained by any power. …The new policy [of preventive war] reverses a long American tradition of contempt for unprovoked attacks. It gives the United States the unrestricted right to attack nations even when it has not been attacked by them and is not about to be attacked by them…It accords the US the right to overthrow any regime–like the one in Iraq–it decided should be overthrown…It declares that the defense of the US and the world against nuclear proliferation is military force.” Declaring the Bush doctrine of endless war defunct will not solve the problems posed by Iraq, but it will reduce the likelihood that we will see more Iraqs in our future.

With the 2008 election in its final throes, it is unlikely that the Democrats (with a few honorable exceptions) will rethink their official national security strategy in any significant way. But citizens committed to a vision of real security can launch a debate framed by our own concerns and values. If we have learned anything in the past seven years, it is that even overwhelming military power is ill suited to dealing with the central challenges of the 21st century: climate crisis, the worst pandemic in human history (AIDS), the spread of weapons of mass destruction, stateless terrorists with global reach, genocidal conflict and starvation afflicting Africa, and a global economy that is generating greater instability and inequality.

Recently, senior US intelligence analyst Thomas Fingar presented the findings of a new report, “Global Trends 2025” that concluded that US leadership will erode “at an accelerating pace” in “political, economic and arguably, cultural arenas.” According to the report, “the one key area of continued US superiority–military power–will be the least significant asset” in dealing with a world reshaped by globalization, battered by climate change and destabilized by regional upheavals over shortages of water, food and energy.

A real security plan would widen the definition to include all threats to human life, whether they stem from terrorism, disease, environmental degradation, natural disasters or global poverty–a definition that makes it clear that the military is only one of many tools that can be used to address urgent threats. A last resort. This alternative security strategy would also reconfigure the US presence in the world – reducing the footprint of American military power, pulling back the forward deployments drastically and reducing the bloated Pentagon budget by as much as half.

Yes, at home, all this will take time and have to overcome the fiercest kind of political resistance. Yet this is not an impossible political goal, now that Americans have seen where the military option leads. Dealing intelligently with reality is not retreat. It is the first wise step toward restoring real national security.