On Dec. 15 in Los Angeles, Howard Dean gave a generally reasonable foreign policy speech and unveiled a roster of several strong foreign policy advisers who have endorsed him. But the Democratic frontrunner continues to make far too many mistakes on foreign policy to be a credible challenger to President Bush next fall, unless his performance improves markedly.
Leave aside the debate over whether we should have gone to war in Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Although Mr. Dean was inconsistent at times, and as political as the next person in how he used the issue to further his candidacy, his main position was reasonable. Iraq probably did not pose an imminent threat to the United States and was not involved in September 11 or as far as we know any other extensive operational collaboration with al Qaeda.
But in recent weeks, Mr. Dean has floundered on most other international issues. He has had a couple good ideas, such as a proposal for a major initiative to address the global scourge of HIV/AIDS. But he has made major mistakes on subjects ranging from Iraq policy to North Korea policy to missile defense – precisely the sort of red meat national security issues on which Republicans love to skewer and roast Democrats, especially Northeastern liberals.
Consider first Iraq. Mr. Dean’s indefensible statement in his Los Angeles speech that “the capture of Saddam has not made America safer” has already been widely discussed. But Mr. Dean’s recent problems with Iraq policy do not end there. This fall, he has sometimes insisted that we must succeed there, but also declared that we must get our troops home and stop spending so much money in the operation.
In the Democratic debate in New Hampshire on Dec. 9, Mr. Dean tried to resolve this contradiction by claiming that 100,000 Muslim troops [preferably Arabs] could replace most U.S. forces in Iraq. Alas, most Arab states have no interest in deploying tens of thousands of troops to Iraq; most Iraqis don’t want them [recall the opposition that the idea of sending troops from Turkey, another Muslim neighbor, recently engendered]; and most Arab forces are not up to the job of defeating the Ba’athist resistance, which would surely not lay down its arms just because the United States reduced its presence. Mr. Dean claims that the first President Bush had enlisted 100,000 Arabs in such a mission back in 1991, but Mr. Dean is wrong. The Arab forces that fought in Desert Storm did not in general enter Iraq.
On missile defense, the problem is simple – Mr. Dean can’t make up his mind.
In a recent survey of candidates sponsored by the Council for a Livable World, Mr. Dean stated that “effective missile defense will be an important part of a Dean administration’s national and homeland security strategy,” while critiquing the Bush administration’s rush to deploy a system next year. Fair enough. But in a Washington Post interview on Dec. 12, he said he would end funding for deployment of a missile defense system.
Then there is another critical national security issue – North Korea and its nuclear weapons, where Mr. Dean is right to criticize Mr. Bush for a failed policy. Unfortunately, the Mr. Dean’s ideas are no better.
The Washington Post recently quoted Mr. Dean as proposing that the United States offer Pyongyang not just security assurances, but also economic and energy benefits, if North Korea verifiably gives up its nuclear programs.
With this idea, Mr. Dean is proposing that we reward North Korea for breaking three previous international accords it signed requiring it not to develop nuclear weapons. To reward North Korea now with even more incentives for breaking its previous commitments risks giving the impression of appeasement. Certainly Karl Rove and the RNC are likely to make that case.
The only way the United States can justify giving more incentives to North Korea is if we also demand more of it – notably, trying to push it in the direction of gradual reform that a country like Vietnam has followed in recent decades. Reform needs to cover economic activity, conventional military forces, ideally even human rights practices.
Without reform, North Korea’s economy will remain broken, virtually ensuring that this will not be the last time it tries to use illicit weapons and provocative behavior to create security crises in order to milk the international community for more resources and concessions.
Howard Dean is a smart enough man to get foreign policy right. But so far he has not, raising the distinct possibility he will be portrayed as a draft-dodging peacenik from the liberal Northeast who would rather deal with dictators than confront them. In an age of global terrorism, this seems a sure prescription for a Democratic loss in 2004.