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SCOT LEHIGH

Centering US foreign policy

IT'S BECOME commonplace to decry the polarized food fight that American politics is today.

From an administration that disdains contrary views and international opinion to a Republican senator who blames liberalism for pedophilia to rabid-right radio talkmeisters who spew invective onto the airwaves to the contumelious screeds of the Hollywood left to a Democratic Party chairman who has professed to hate Republicans and everything they stand for, there's much to lament.

Yet this week, there's also reason to be hopeful. In an era of partisan excess, some distinguished political figures are dedicating themselves to restoring the sensible center, particularly in foreign affairs.

Their own days as officeholders and appointees are over, but they believe that the United States needs to return to an era when people of different parties could come together around a broad set of overarching principles.

And so on Wednesday, the Partnership for a Secure America announced itself. Chaired by Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, its bipartisan board includes two former secretaries of state (Warren Christopher from the Clinton administration and Lawrence Eagleburger from that of the first President Bush), six former senators (Rudman and fellow Republicans Jack Danforth, Howard Baker, and Nancy Kassebaum Baker, plus Democrats Gary Hart and Sam Nunn), three former UN ambassadors, and four former national security advisers. Oh, yes, and even a face with a Massachusetts past: Bill Weld.

''We have some very serious issues facing the country in the foreign policy and the security areas," says Rudman. ''If we are not able to address them in a spirit of bipartisanship and consensus-building, we will have a particularly difficult time solving the problems within the time the solutions are needed."

''We are trying to restore a mainstream approach to America's role in the world," says Hart, who adds that the tradition of bipartisan foreign policy ''was badly shattered by the invasion of Iraq and the introduction of ideology in the form of neoconservatism and the doctrine of preemption and preventive war. What we are trying to do is put that mainstream back together."

But won't the partnership's efforts be read as a rebuke to the current administration and thus rejected by its defenders?

Diplomacy abounds. Perhaps they will be seen that way, but that's not the intent, insists Hart.

Interpreting the group that way ''would be a terrible mistake," replies Rudman.

The partnership's goal, says Hamilton, is ''broadening the support for American foreign policy to the maximum extent."

For now, at least, that means bypassing the contentious issue of Iraq in favor of general tenets the partnership hopes to forge consensus around. Not that Hart wouldn't like to take on Iraq, mind you -- ''I think it is not only possible, but imperative" -- but Rudman and Hamilton are dubious. ''It is not likely you can bring about a consensus view on Iraq," says Hamilton. ''It is a policy too far down the road."

Those principles (online at www.psaonline.org) call for tireless antiterrorism efforts, but accompanied by a commitment to democracy and civil liberties at home and abroad; for building strong alliances and working ''to renew and reform the United Nations," for expanding efforts both to secure weapons materials in Russia and to deter other countries from acquiring WMD; and for aggressively addressing global poverty, disease, and underdevelopment.

The partnership also declares that ''America's growing federal debt directly threatens our national security and must be controlled by urgent bipartisan action," that the United States must invest ''far more" in energy efficiency and alternative energy, and that the country must ensure that emergency responders have the resources they need.

The group will now work toward specifics to inform those broad declarations. Coming first: A September conference in Washington on combatting terrorism, done in conjunction with the New America Foundation.

Rudman, of course, is an old hand at this kind of work, having not only co-chaired the Hart-Rudman commission on national security but also worked with the late Paul Tsongas to start the Concord Coalition, now an important deficit watchdog. As such, he's under no illusions about the challenges ahead.

''To assess the probability of success on a venture like this is very difficult," he admits. ''But we have a wonderful group of people."

And in this hyperpartisan era, the partnership deserves bipartisan credit for even attempting the daunting task of rebuilding the center.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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