PRESIDENT BUSH'S 16 words on uranium and Africa in his January State of the Union address--"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa"--have become famous, or infamous. But Dick Gephardt's 16 words, spoken in the course of a major foreign policy speech this past Tuesday, are the ones that matter.
Bush's words, though probably a mistake, didn't change anything. The vote to authorize war had taken place months before. The arguments for and against war had all been made and re-made. The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate--even if one accepts the State Department's modest dissent to one of its findings--shows that the president acted in good faith in making his case about the danger of Saddam's quest for weapons of mass destruction.
Dick Gephardt's 16 words, by contrast, change everything. They reflect the considered judgment of a centrist Democratic presidential candidate--one who voted to authorize the war--that his party must stand in fundamental opposition to the Bush foreign policy. They indicate the capture of the Democratic party by the pace-setter in the presidential race, former Vermont governor Howard Dean.
Dean said on June 22 that "we don't know whether in the long run the Iraqi people are better off" with Saddam gone, and "we don't know whether we're better off." At the time, Gephardt demurred from Dean's agnosticism.
Now, exactly one month later, Gephardt is following in Dean's footsteps.
Actually, Gephardt went further than Dean. I suppose it's technically possible that things could turn out worse for the Iraqi people, or for us, post-Saddam (though I'd be happy to take that bet, and I'm sure the Bush campaign would too). But Gephardt has laid down an extraordinarily clear marker for judging the Bush administration: He claims we're less safe and less secure than we were four years ago.
Is this the case? Were we safer and more secure when Osama bin Laden was unimpeded in assembling his terror network in Afghanistan? When Pakistan was colluding with the Taliban, and Saudi Arabia with al Qaeda? When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq? When demonstrations by an incipient democratic opposition in Iran had been crushed with nary a peep from the U.S. government? When we were unaware that North Korea, still receiving U.S. food aid, had covertly started a second nuclear program? When our defense budget and our intelligence services were continuing to drift downward in capacity in a post-Cold War world?
Are we not even a little safer now that the Taliban and Saddam are gone, many al Qaeda operatives have been captured or killed, governments such as Pakistan's and Saudi Arabia's are at least partly hampering al Qaeda's efforts instead of blithely colluding with them, the opposition in Iran is stronger, our defense and intelligence budgets are up, and, for that matter, Milosevic is gone and the Balkans are at peace (to mention something for which the Clinton administration deserves credit, but that had not yet happened as of four years ago)?
Is it reasonable to criticize aspects of the Bush administration's foreign policy? Sure. The initial failures in planning for postwar Iraq, the incoherence of its North Korea policy, the failure adequately to increase defense spending or reform our intelligence agencies...on all of these, and other issues as well, the administration could use constructive, even sharp, criticism. But that we were safer and more secure four years ago?
Gephardt has made a claim that will come back to haunt him and his fellow Democrats.
Bill Clinton understands this. Tuesday evening, hours after Gephardt's speech, he suggested in a television interview that rather than debate the past, "we ought to focus on where we are and what the right thing to do for Iraq is now." Indeed, he (implicitly) warned his fellow Democrats that "we should be pulling for America on this. We should be pulling for the people of Iraq." Clinton knows the Democrats cannot allow themselves to be seen as the party that begrudges American successes in struggles against our enemies. (Could he have this in the back of his mind: The Democrats continue to move in this suicidal direction, the administration flounders on other fronts, and a fresh face rides to the rescue in the fall--Hillary Clinton!)
There are plenty of legitimate grounds to criticize the Bush administration's foreign policy. But the American people, whatever their doubts about aspects of Bush's foreign policy, know that Bush is serious about fighting terrorists and terrorist states that mean America harm. About Bush's Democratic critics, they know no such thing.
Bonus Reading: For an illuminating and detailed dissection of Ron Asmus and Ken Pollack's July 22, 2003 Washington Post essay, see Gary Schmitt's response at the Project for the New American Century.