Colin Powell's Commanding Presence I

This column is about the foreign policy fallout from the U.S. elections. But first, a story. I was recently interviewing a senior European diplomat when he began complaining about the Bush team's Mideast policy, which involves telling the truth to Palestinians -- that they need a new leader -- but not telling the truth to Israel -- that it needs to find a secure way to get out of the settlements. He became so passionate that I couldn't resist asking: "What does Colin Powell say when you tell him this?" The diplomat then did an imitation of Powell raising his eyebrows as if to say, "You know what I believe, and you know I can't do anything about it with the crazies in this administration."

I've been thinking a lot about Colin Powell's eyebrows this week. Let's be blunt: the Democratic Party as a force for shaping U.S. foreign policy is out of business, until that party undergoes regime change. That's not healthy. You can't have a sound foreign policy without an intelligent domestic opposition keeping people honest.

With the Dems out of business, the real opposition party on foreign policy will now be the "De Facto Democrats": Colin Powell, John McCain and the British prime minister, Tony Blair. They are the only voices that, if raised in opposition to any Bush foreign policy initiative, could restrain the president and sway the public. That is not true of any Democrat today.

What the last election showed us is what a deep trauma of vulnerability 9/11 etched on the American psyche. "The Democrats' key failure," said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, "was their inability to persuade Americans -- in their guts -- that they were prepared to deal with the world as it really is now." That is a world full of terrorists and rogue regimes dedicated to our destruction and not responsive to therapy or social work.

Where the Bush hard-liners are out of step is that many people here and abroad don't believe these guys really want to invest in making the world a different place, or that they have any imagination or inspiration to do so. The reason the De Facto Democrats are so important, and have a future, is that people trust that they see the world as it is -- but also aspire to make it a better place. That is where the soul of America is.

Powell and Blair pushed Bush to go through the United Nations before invading Iraq. The hard-liners were angry about that because they fear the inspectors won't find anything and then Iraq will be off the hook. Cool it. Saddam is as likely to fully comply with the UN as Mike Tyson is to embrace anger management, and by framing the issue in the UN, Bush ensured much greater public support for any war. It was good advice by the De Facto Democrats, and more will be needed.

Consider the Predator drone that last week fired a rocket and wiped out a key al-Qaida cell in Yemen. Because what you have today is the Arab street and the Arab basement. Predators are very necessary for wiping out the hard-core terrorists who have left the street and gone into the basement, where they are beyond diplomacy and committed to violence.

Powell has always understood, better than the Bush hard-liners (who say, Forget about streets, treaties and institutions -- foreign policy is about asserting U.S. power) that Predators are necessary, but not sufficient. You don't have to cater to the Arab street, or the European street or the Chechen street, but if you don't listen to their legitimate aspirations, you end up refilling the basements with more dangerous characters. If the only outstretched American hand the world sees is the Predator drone, we're in trouble.

This is where the real fight in America is going to be: between those who just want to deal with the world as it is, and those who want to deal with the world as it is -- but also really invest in changing it. Until Democrats convince the public that they know how the world really is, we will have to rely on De Facto Democrats to fight this fight. But that means Powell must step it up. If he and his allies are going to prevail, they are going to have to raise more than just their eyebrows.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.