Eighteen months ago, in the early stages of the 2004 presidential campaign, Howard Dean made a rookie mistake. It was the kind of gaffe that more ex perienced politi cians avoid like the flu. He got caught telling the truth.
As reported in the April 28, 2003, edition of Time magazine, Dean suggested at a campaign event in New Hampshire, "America should begin planning for a time that it is not the world's greatest superpower.
"We have to take a different approach [to diplomacy]. We won't always have the strongest military."
It took barely a nanosecond for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to pounce on Dean's words. Kerry's press secretary issued a statement that stopped just short of accusing Dean of treason.
"Dean's stated belief that the United States 'won't always have the strongest military' raises serious questions about his capacity to serve as Commander-in-Chief," the statement said. "No serious candidate for president has ever before suggested that he would compromise or tolerate the erosion of America's military supremacy."
Dean did not fix a time for America's inevitable military decline, except to say it would not come on his watch if he could help it. He said the war on terrorism cannot be won by relying solely on military power without an equally robust policy of diplomacy and coalition-building.
"Even the most sophisticated military in the world acting alone cannot eliminate all sleeper terrorist cells, nor should it be called upon to take on every dictator for the purpose of regime change," Dean said through a spokesman.
In this context, President George W. Bush's doctrine of preventive war seems doomed to fail. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged as much as in a private memo that found its way to the front page of USA Today last week.
Even as the Bush administration was putting the best face it could on an increasingly troublesome war, Rumsfeld privately raised doubts about whether the Pentagon has the capacity or the will to fight a war against terrorism that he predicts will be "a long, hard slog."
In contrast to Rumsfeld's optimistic public pronouncements, his memo asks whether the United States has been "capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas [Islamic schools] and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"
Answering reporters' questions about the memo, Rumsfeld said, "How many young people are being taught to go out as suicide bombers and to kill people, that's the question. How many are there, and how does that inflow of terrorists in the world get reduced so that the number of people captured or killed is greater than the ones being produced?"
Reading between the lines of Rumsfeld's memo, one gets the sense that he, like Dean, broods about the limitations of military power in the 21st century when faced with a relentless enemy who can strike anywhere, anytime and is willing to die for a cause.
In telling the truth about the fate that eventually befalls all military empires (Why should this one be any different?) Rumsfeld in his private memo and Dean in his off-the-cuff remark on the campaign trail have issued warnings that we ignore at our peril.
Cyberspace columnist Mickey Kaus, writing in his online blog, takes Dean's question one step further: "Which country is more likely to one day have a stronger military than ours? Hint: What looks good on a white tablecloth?"
Why not China? It has five times the population of the United States. Its economy is outpacing ours. If the 20th century was the American Century, could this be the Chinese Century?
Don't answer before you've had a chance to really think about it.
When I first heard about Dean's statement challenging the orthodoxy that most Americans accept unquestioningly, I was on a college campus, where I asked a history professor for his assessment.
How long can the United States remain No. 1?
Without hesitation, he replied, "Sparta once ruled the known world with an iron hand. I'm sure the Spartans thought it would always be that way." Looking around, the gray-haired professor said with a chuckle, "You don't see many Spartans around anymore, do you?"
Brazaitis, formerly a Plain Dealer senior editor, is a Washington columnist.