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The Democrats' Dean Dilemma

From the December 29, 2003 / January 5, 2004 issue: Will the Democratic center speak out?

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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WE DON'T CLAIM to understand the mind of Howard Dean. With back-room assistance from a small army of Democratic party foreign policy brahmins, Dean recently produced a long, formal speech on "Meeting the Security Challenges of the New Century." The speech was advertised as a reassuring demonstration that Dean's overall thinking about world affairs, notwithstanding the spicy antiwar rhetoric that has propelled his campaign so far, lies safely within the bipartisan consensus that's governed American politics for 50-plus years. The choreography was designed this way: Dean delivered his address to a sober think-tank audience in Los Angeles on December 15, with none other than Warren Christopher, the Ghost of Democratic State Departments Past, looking over his shoulder. And Dean's actual text, though it hardly represented a WEEKLY STANDARD view of things, might certainly, most of it, have been written by Christopher himself.

Indeed, even on Iraq, the former Vermont governor appeared eager to recast himself as something other than a baying full-mooner. Toward the beginning of his remarks, Dean said the war was launched "in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with inadequate planning, insufficient help, and at unbelievable cost." Toward the end, Dean said the war was "ill-considered." But nowhere in his Los Angeles speech did Dean say the war was essentially unwarranted. At one point, in fact, he seemed to suggest that the United States might ultimately and legitimately have "found no alternative to Saddam's ouster."

Tonally, at least, all this was very new for Howard Dean.

And yet, there was that single, striking sentence that wasn't new, tonally or in any other respect, the one where Dean's ferocious vanity and corresponding inability to concede even the tiniest speck of credit to George W. Bush peeked through. "The capture of Saddam"--announced the day before--"has not made America safer," Dean sniffed.

Furthermore, reverting to instinct during the Q&A session that followed his carefully scripted Los Angeles pronouncement, Dean wasted little time stripping himself bare of precisely that "moderate" image it had been intended to win him. There he was, in his force-averse, neo-isolationist skivvies, advancing a semi-coherent and alarmingly stingy "Dean Doctrine" that would circumscribe the exercise of U.S. military power abroad. The engagement of American arms should be "confined," Dean said, to three sets of circumstances only: One, if we've already been attacked, as with Afghanistan. Two, if we know we're about to be attacked. ("I hope we would have done something," Dean mused aloud, vaguely echoing the bizarre-o conspiracy theory he'd floated a week before, "had we known Osama bin Laden was going to run planes into the World Trade Center.") And three, though only "in some instances, when other world bodies fail," it's okay for the United States to intervene militarily in order "to stop genocide."

Saddam Hussein, of course, would not have qualified for American attention under the "Dean Doctrine." Not this year, anyway: "I would have supported intervention during the Shiite massacres," the doctrinaire Dr. Dean casually allowed, "but those occurred 11 years ago." Nor, it seems, would Saddam's associations with terrorism and determination to acquire weapons of mass destruction have prompted President Dean to take action, even had the evidence been contemporaneous and undebatable. North Korea, after all, "may or may not possess nuclear weapons, but surely, at least at this time, is not an imminent threat."

Nevertheless, "I would not have hesitated to go into Iraq," Dean concluded, despite having just ruled it out as a matter of principle, "had the United Nations given us permission."

You can drag a man to the foreign-policy center with a big, subtle, ghostwritten speech. But you can't make him think from the center if he really doesn't want to. And let's face it: Howard Dean really doesn't want to. That "capture of Saddam has not made America safer" remark earned him three days of stinging criticism from his presidential-primary rivals and from an increasingly skeptical press corps. Whereupon Dean apparently decided that he'd made a mistake even attempting to reposition himself as a national-security moderate. Not only is America no safer for the capture of Saddam, he growled at a subsequent press conference in New Hampshire, but "we are no safer today than the day the planes struck the World Trade Center"; the defenestration of the Taliban from Kabul counts for nothing.

"I think the Democratic party has to offer a clear alternative to the American people," says the new, new Howard Dean. The "Washington Politics-as-Usual Club"--not just the Republicans, but also all those "Washington Democrats" who "fell meekly into line" over Bush's ghastly foreign war--must be swept aside.