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In his 1982 speech before the British parliament, President Ronald Reagan called for a "global campaign of freedom" to put all dictatorships on the "ash heap of history." Palmer, a foreign service officer at the time, wrote the first draft of that speech and has been campaigning for a pro-democracy foreign policy ever since. He believes such a campaign to be not just an idealistic crusade but essential to U.S. national security.

Much of his analysis in Breaking the Real Axis of Evil concerns the greater Middle East, a term much used by the U.S. government to describe the area from North Africa through to Pakistan and Central Asia, and an area "of democratic darkness" that hosts by his count 23 of the world's 45 tyrannies. He argues that if the democrats inside and outside these countries fail to join hands "the successors to the current dictators will only be Islamic fundamentalist extremists.... The palaces must give way to democracies—or to the mosque."

Palmer offers practical ideas for ways to reverse the dictators' grip, drawing on experiences in such countries as the Philippines, Chile, and Serbia, to develop a two-stage set of general guidelines for international support for a nonviolent campaign to oust dictators. The first stage consists of naming and shaming the dictators, along with providing the democratic opposition with strategic advice and material assistance for specific projects. The second stage is facing and ousting, including attempts to co-opt the regime's pillars of support, a search for legal means through which the dictatorial regime can be challenged, and support for democratic actions.

Palmer provides thumbnail sketches of the problems in applying this approach to each of the world's tyrannies, with more than fifty pages devoted to the countries of the greater Middle East. No wild-eyed radical or impractical dreamer, he is well aware of the danger that existing tyrannies—be they monarchies or personality-cult dictatorships—will be replaced by Islamists. He understands how to balance working with existing governments on issues of common concern while at the same time promoting democratic change. In other words, Palmer provides a practical handbook for how to put into effect a pro-democratic foreign policy for a U.S. government that is so minded.