Will Howard Dean’s sharp criticisms of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy leave him vulnerable to the Republican charge that he is weak on national security? This question haunts the Democratic Party as it enters the presidential primary season. Mr. Dean would almost surely not have achieved front-runner status without going on the attack against George W. Bush’s Iraq policy. But most Democrats say they prefer a less strident candidate who criticizes Mr. Bush more for his unilateralist rush to war than the justness of the basic cause—and who therefore might be in better synch with the country’s political center of gravity come next November.
Clearly, Mr. Dean’s opposition to the war now looks like a sounder political position than it did right after Saddam Hussein fell. Inspectors have not found the advanced chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs they expected in Iraq. Evidence of any substantial connection between Saddam and al Qaeda is flimsy; the president has himself observed that there is no evidence linking Saddam to the Sept. 11 attacks. A protracted and intensifying insurgency in post-Saddam Iraq makes our triumph look increasingly incomplete. Perhaps a continuation of containment and sanctions was a reasonable policy option after all. Even those of us who reject this argument must concede it is now more powerful than it was seven months ago.
But even if one grants that point, there are two big problems with Mr. Dean’s position on Iraq—not even counting his occasional intemperate remarks, like those expressing ambivalence about the fall of Saddam and killings of Uday and Qusay Hussein. And they may spell big political trouble for the governor come next summer and fall, should he be the Democratic nominee at that point.
First, Mr. Dean agreed with President Bush that Saddam needed to be disarmed but never explained how to verifiably achieve that goal without threatening force. In other words, Mr. Dean did not really support containment. He did not say we could live with the status quo. He too wanted to ensure that Saddam complied with U.N. demands, yet offered no practical sticks—or carrots—to accomplish that objective.
For example, in a major foreign policy address at Drake University on Feb. 17 this year, Gov. Dean stated that “Saddam Hussein must disarm. This is not a debate, this is a given.” But in the same speech he described a military operation to overthrow Saddam as “the wrong war at the wrong time.” Just how one could have expected Saddam to verifiably disarm in the face of such rhetoric is unclear. The former governor did not assert that Saddam already was effectively disarmed or that we could live with the status quo. Nor did he argue that inspections should be given more time before resorting to war. Rather, he categorically opposed the threat of force even as he insisted that the U.S. did need to ensure Saddam’s disarmament. This position does not hold water.
But enough about the past. Mr. Dean’s second main problem is even more serious because it concerns what to do about Iraq now. Here he is trying to have it both ways. He insists at times that we need to remain in Iraq and succeed. Then he changes tune abruptly, advocating U.S. troop withdrawals and opposing further expenditures of American money to complete the job there. The first position is clearly designed to appeal to the left-leaning part of the Democratic base, the second to the general electorate. Mr. Dean is making both arguments simultaneously, and they are completely contradictory.
Consider the record. On Sept. 26 this year, in a statement calling for the resignations of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Mr. Dean stated that “we are in Iraq now, and we cannot afford to fail.” On Oct. 9, in the Democratic debate in Phoenix, he said, “Now that we’re there, we can’t pull out responsibly.” In these comments, Mr. Dean was realistically recognizing the strategic importance of succeeding in Iraq even if he had himself opposed getting involved there. He was also recognizing the political need to appeal to the mainstream American voter who knows we cannot cut and run in this crucial part of the world.
But there is another side to Mr. Dean—the one who must tap into the anger of the Democratic left against all things Bush and against the war in Iraq in particular. In the Sept. 4 debate in Albuquerque, N.M., for example, Mr. Dean stated: “We need more troops. They’re going to be foreign troops, as they should have been in the first place, not American troops. Ours need to come home.” This was nothing short of a prescription for ending the mission and declaring failure.
Worst of all is the new Dean television ad in Iowa. In that spot, he chastises Dick Gephardt for supporting President Bush’s Iraq policy, and then concludes, “I opposed the war in Iraq. And I’m against spending another $87 billion there.” Mr. Dean does not say he opposed the specifics of the administration’s supplemental appropriation, which would be a partially defensible position held by several other Democratic candidates. Rather, he categorically opposes an expense of that magnitude in ads running right now in the Hawkeye State. Unfortunately for the country and for the soundness of Mr. Dean’s argument, there is no way to stabilize Iraq and protect U.S. security interests in the region without an expenditure in that ballpark.
To be sure, other Democratic candidates for president—to say nothing of President Bush—have flaws in their own Iraq positions. But Mr. Dean has claimed to be much more courageous and honest in his Iraq views than the competition. He has also used the issue to catapult himself to front-runner status in the Democratic field. For these reasons, he needs to be held to a high standard. Before choosing Mr. Dean as the party’s nominee, Democrats and independents need to assess carefully his Iraq position. They also need to ask themselves how Karl Rove is likely to exploit it later next year, when the operation in Iraq could be going considerably better and when garnering the most left-leaning third of the Democratic vote will not win an election.