Dean's foreign policy message: I'm no sissy.

Politics and policy.
Dec. 16 2003 4:47 PM

Howard the Hawk

Dean's foreign policy message: I'm no sissy.

(Continued from Page 1)

I don't buy it. France refused to accept the principle of a deadline by which Saddam's failure to comply with inspections would automatically trigger military action. Instead, the council would have debated the matter again and again. More generally, you have to decide whether you think the threat of unilateral U.S. action is more likely to antagonize other countries into walking away or to scare them into getting involved so that they can temper the mission. I think it's more likely to scare them into getting involved, particularly after their refusal to do so in Iraq failed to stop the mission and left them out in the cold. Bush is right on this one.

To make Bush look weak on defense, Dean rehashes the usual Democratic complaint that Bush is stiffing veterans' health care. But Dean also throws in more creative arguments. He accuses Bush of funding "new generations of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons" that don't help—and take money away from—the war on terrorism. And he argues that the Iraq war, by pulling tens of thousands of National Guard members overseas for more than a year, has "deprived local communities of many of their best defenders." The Guard's "main mission should be here at home, preparing, planning, and acting to keep our citizens safe in the United States," says Dean. If al-Qaida strikes us again, this argument puts Dean in a position to hammer Bush for leaving the homeland exposed.

Is Dean too inexperienced to handle national security? That's the gist of the first question he gets in the Q and A. He answers by talking about his travels abroad. He sounds like a candidate in a job interview trying lamely to paper over a hole in his résumé. The stronger rejoinder conveyed by Dean and his chief foreign policy adviser, Ivo Daalder, is that a Dean-Bush race pits an inexperienced prodigy against an inexperienced moron. Daalder touts Dean's "quick grasp" of foreign affairs. Dean promises never to do what Bush did: start a war without planning for its aftermath.

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Dean has definitely been boning up. In the Q and A, he says he views China not as a "strategic competitor" but as an "economic competitor" and sometimes a "strategic ally." I don't really understand these distinctions, but apparently they're very important. Every time a U.S. president puts the words together in the wrong combination, Beijing goes nuts. Evidently they mean something in Chinese.

The risk for Dean is that in trying to sound smart, he'll come off as a jerk, as Al Gore did in his first debate with Bush in 2000. I still think Dean's problem on national security is arrogance, not weakness. The election is a choice "between brash boastfulness and considered confidence," he asserts in his speech. Sounds like a boast to me. Answering the question about inexperience, Dean says he studied "under what I consider to be the best history department in the United States, at Yale University." I can see the ad. Left half of the screen: "Bush. Won Two Wars." Right half: "Dean. Studied at Yale."

But for now, Dean just wants to make clear he's no hippie. He says he belongs to the tradition of "Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the first President Bush." The big lie of the campaign, Daalder tells the reporters in Washington, is that if you're against the Iraq war, you're against war. Dean is a "centrist," Daalder insists. "If there's a radical in this fight, it is the president. And if there's a conservative … it's Howard Dean." Would Dean cut defense spending? "No," Daalder replies emphatically, without a moment's pause.

On my way out, I ask Daalder about something Dean said in Iowa four months ago: that he wants a foreign policy more like Jimmy Carter's. Daalder practically jerks backward, as though he's just been told somebody saw his candidate wearing a dress. You can be sure we won't be hearing stuff like that from Howard Dean anymore.

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