I’ve been bluntly critical of Sarah Palin before when I felt it warranted, but I’ve never had anything but respect for her formidable intellect and political saavy. I think she’s easily the most credible challenger to President Obama in 2012 and while I still think Obama would prevail, he’s in for a tough fight if the GOP nominates her. Which it most likely will, given that Palinmania is evolving into the litmus test for party loyalty. Her folksy facade is as much a manufactured image as was Fred Thompson’s, and she knows how to tap into the populist anger. Recall she was seeding Obama hatred at McCain-Palin campaign rallies long before Tea Parties bearing racist and Nazi signs descended upon Capitol Hill to chant their hatred and frustrations.

But as I said, she’s brilliant, and her speech in Hong Kong last week is ample evidence – she’s coined the next great incantation of conservatism with which to rally conservatives to the worn Republican banner again: “common sense conservatism.” It’s far more faithful to conservatism’s spirit than “compassionate conservatism” ever was. But more to the point, she actually embodies it – it’s not just a cynical catchphrase but a genuine worldview. A worldview I disagree with, but which is not hypocritical or internally inconsistent. She is an effective and compelling advocate for her point of view in this speech, which probably reads better than it sounds.

There are two things that stand out in this speech to me. The first is her emphasis on China, which dominates the word cloud, which only makes sense given she delivered the speech at the CLSA Pacific Markets Conference (which as you might suspect has China on the brain). She focused on China as an emerging power, and the ambiguity (daresay, inscrutability?) of its intentions:

See: this is the heart of the issue with China: we engage with the hope Beijing becomes a responsible stakeholder, but we must takes steps in the event it does not. See?

(…) We can, must and should work with a “rising China” to address issues of mutual concern. But we also need to work with our allies in addressing the uncertainties created by China’s rise. We simply CANNOT turn a blind eye to Chinese policies and actions that can undermine international peace and security.

China has some 1000 missiles aimed at Taiwan and no serious observer believes Taiwan poses a military threat to Beijing. Those same Chinese forces make our friends in Japan and Australia nervous.

China provides support for some of the world’s most questionable regimes from Sudan to Burma to Zimbabwe.

China’s military buildup raises concerns from Delhi to Tokyo because it has taken place in the absence of any discernable external threat.

China, along with Russia, has repeatedly undermined efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Iran for its defiance of the international community in pursuing its nuclear program.

The Chinese food and product safety record has raised alarms from East Asia and Europe to the United States. And, domestic incidents of unrest — from the protests of Uighurs and Tibetans, to Chinese workers throughout the country rightfully make us nervous.

It is very much in our interest and the interest of regional stability that China work out its own contradictions – between a dynamic and entrepreneurial private sector on the one hand and a one party state unwilling or unable to adjust to its own society’s growing needs and desires and demands, including a human being’s innate desire for freedom.

I do not cite these issues out of any hostility toward China. Quite the contrary, I and all Americans of good faith hope for the Chinese people’s success. We welcome the rise that can be so good for all mankind. We simply urge China to rise responsibly.

This is really a very sound attitude; not one of communist-alarmism or fear mongering, but a strong willingness to engage while also reserving the right to critique. As she points out later, China certainly has no qualms in criticizing us. And yet she is absolutely clear and reasonable about China’s potential as a “responsible” economic partner and relevance to regional stability. She also asks a rather insightful question: “How many books and articles have been written about the dangers of India’s rise?” The answer is none, of course, and that fact in itself is interesting and revealing.

The second portion of interest were her remarks on the war on terror and Islam:

In this struggle with radical Islamic extremists, no part of the world is safe from those who bomb, maim and kill in the service of their twisted vision.

This war – and that is what it is, a war – is not, as some have said, a clash of civilizations. We are not at war with Islam. This is a war within Islam, where a small minority of violent killers seeks to impose their view on the vast majority of Muslims who want the same things all of us want: economic opportunity, education, and the chance to build a better life for themselves and their families. The reality is that al Qaeda and its affiliates have killed scores of innocent Muslim men, women and children.

The reality is that Muslims from Algeria, Indonesia, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other countries are fighting Al Qaeda and their allies today. But this will be a long war, and it will require far more than just military power to prevail. Just as we did in the Cold War, we will need to use all the tools at our disposal – hard and soft power. Economic development, public diplomacy, educational exchanges, and foreign assistance will be just as important as the instruments of military power.

During the election campaign in the U.S. last year, you might have noticed we had some differences over Iraq.

John McCain and I believed in the strength of the surge strategy – and because of its success, Iraq is no longer the central front in the war on terrorism. Afghanistan is.

All emphases mine – she sounds positively Hillary-esque! She goes on to firmly express her support for the President’s Afghanistan focus and urges him to send as many troops as Gen McChrystal requests. I find her admission that Iraq no longer being the central front of terrorism remarkable (if not revisionist). What is even more remarkable is her statement later, in the context of her China commentary:

I am not talking about some U.S.-led “democracy crusade.” We cannot impose our values on other counties. Nor should we seek to. But the ideas of freedom, liberty and respect for human rights are not U.S. ideas, they are much more than that. They are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other international covenants and treaties.

I fully and completely agree with Sarah Palin 100% here. Human rights are indeed universal; there is no “hegemony of human rights discourse”. But neither can we impose our system and political traditions wholesale on another society. The trick is to cultivate those values but let them flower in a native fashion, from within.

Sane commentary about Islam (not to mention foreign policy) is extremely rare for a Republican politician courting the base nowadays. Given that Palin is Palin, she is probably the only GOP politician who can get away with taking a moderate tack on the issue of Islam. Perhaps in Palin lies the salvation of the GOP away from the angry fringe and back to the cooler shade of reason after all. If so, it will be irony indeed, considering that Palin played a central role in stirring that emotion and anger in the first place.

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