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.

Dean flexes his muscle
Dean flexes his muscle

In 1988, Michael Dukakis' Texan running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, went around the South telling people, "Michael Dukakis will not take your gun away!" This week, in a speech aimed at proving he's no Dukakis, Howard Dean promises not to take your Army's guns away.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Dean delivers the speech Monday in Los Angeles. Afterward, his foreign policy advisers field questions about it at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Warren Christopher, the Yoda of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, kicks things off in Los Angeles by welcoming everybody to "the first major foreign policy speech of Gov. Dean's primary campaign." A minute later, Christopher again mentions "Gov. Dean's primary campaign." Why does Christopher keep saying this? Because he knows it isn't true. This is the third major foreign policy speech of Dean's primary campaign. The reason we're all listening to it is that it's the first foreign policy speech of Dean's general election campaign.

Dean's basic goal is to debunk the idea that he's antiwar or soft on Saddam Hussein. He lists all the military actions he supported: Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan. He repeats several times that Saddam is a bad guy. Actually, "bad guy" is the sort of language President Bush would use. Dean's stuffier description is "frightful person." Dean also pronounces himself "delighted" about Saddam's capture—a word Bush would never use in that context without raising a pinky and an ironic eyebrow.

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So does Bush get credit for the capture? Nope. The closest Dean comes is thanking U.S. "military leaders" for nabbing Saddam. Then Dean starts moving the goalpost. He calls the capture an "opportunity" to pursue achievements that are more difficult ("securing Iraq," providing "stability"), are sure to be falsified every day ("protecting the safety of our personnel"), and run against Bush's grain ("repair our alliances and regain global support for American goals"). In short, he sets up Bush for failure. His sneakiest line is, "We hope Saddam will give us information about weapons of mass destruction that led us into this war." If Saddam provides no such information, Dean will argue that he was just a means to an end, and the real prize—the WMD—remains at large.

That's the crux of Dean's case: The real threats to the United States are global terrorism and WMD, and the Iraq war addressed neither. Saddam's terror connections and weapons programs were more than zero but less than what other regimes had. To that extent, the war was a net loss, since it consumed resources that could have been used more efficiently to fight terrorism or WMD elsewhere, and it antagonized countries whose help we needed in those pursuits. Ousting Saddam was good for the Kurds, the Shiites, and probably for the nations bordering Iraq. But it wasn't essential to the security of the United States.

The line that in the speech that draws the most flak afterward is, "The capture of Saddam has not made America safer." But analytically, Dean is right. The people who are safer with Saddam in prison are in Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait. We weren't on the list. I supported the war to punish a scofflaw and put teeth in U.N. resolutions. Bush now defends the war as a rescue mission for oppressed Iraqis. Neither reason has to do with U.S. security.

What would Dean do to keep WMD out of the hands of terrorists? What Democrats do best: spend money. He wants a $60 billion global fund, with half the money coming from the United States, to contain WMD. How would the money solve the problem? Mostly through bribery. A lot of loose nukes and loose nuclear scientists are running around, especially thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union. We can outbid terrorists for the weapons and the scientists. Dean credits this idea to two foreign policy luminaries, former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Sen. Dick Lugar, R-In., so everyone understands it isn't some loopy left-wing fantasy.

Dean defines his foreign policy in two ways: It would be "mutilateralist" and have "high moral purpose." What's immoral about Bush's foreign policy? Bush didn't tell the truth about Iraq's WMD or its links to terrorism, and he let ideology distort intelligence about both matters, says Dean. That's an accurate and damning indictment. But aside from telling the truth, how would Dean's foreign policy be moral? He says he'd "stand up to the Saudis," yet he also criticizes Bush for rebuking other miscreants too publicly. And Dean's basic critique of the Iraq war is that it wasn't selfish. I don't see how, on more than procedural grounds, his approach is more moral than Bush's.

Dean's case for multilateralism is fishy, too. He notes that when other countries join us in a mission, they lighten our burden. But what if they refuse? In Iraq, Bush resorted to a "coalition of the willing." Dean derides this as a "pick-up team" and suggests that it can't work because the teammates haven't shared training and equipment. I think he's stretching the metaphor. Iraq shows that the Italians can handle one part of the job, the Poles another, and the Fijians another, while U.S. troops do the heavy lifting.

The other problem with Bush's bullheaded approach, according to Dean, is that it inhibits collective action. Dean says that he would have supported ousting Saddam through the United Nations but that Bush "pre-empted" U.N. action by vowing to oust Saddam with or without its help. In the session with Washington reporters after the speech, Dean adviser Susan Rice elaborates on this claim, arguing that if Bush had waited just "a few weeks" more, the U.N. Security Council might have reached a "consensus" to disarm Saddam.

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.

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.