Howard Dean showed a good measure of insight with regard to international affairs and security issues - and an even greater measure of political courage - when the man who is often portrayed as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination declared amid all the hoopla about the detention of Iraq's former dictator that "the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer."
If the debate about the U.S. invasion of Iraq were being conducted along lines of fact or logic, of course, Dean's comment would be a simple statement of reality. Even before the U.S. attack on Iraq, there was no evidence that Saddam posed any immediate threat to the United States. Years of United Nations inspections, strict sanctions and bombings had rendered him a toothless tiger. And his militant secularism meant that it was comic to suggest Saddam had linked up with the religious extremists who lead the al-Qaida terrorist network.
That is why America's allies around the world, experts on the Middle East and U.N. officials - including weapon inspectors - counseled that an invasion of Iraq was unnecessary. But George W. Bush was bent on making war, so the invasion went ahead and quickly forced Saddam from power in a fight so lopsided that it proved Saddam was even less of a threat than serious observers of the region had imagined.
Now, months after he was deposed, Saddam has been found lying face down in a hole in the ground. It is possible - although far from certain - that his capture will make it somewhat easier for U.S. forces to operate on the ground in Iraq. But it is impossible - and ridiculous - to suggest that ordinary American citizens are any safer today than they were last week when Saddam was still in hiding.
That was the point that Dean was making in his foreign policy address to the Pacific Council in Los Angeles on Monday. And Dean made it in a reasoned manner that saw him addressing points that were very much in the mainstream of the discourse about the Iraq imbroglio.
"The difficulties and tragedies which we have faced in Iraq show the administration launched the war in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with inadequate planning, insufficient help, and at extraordinary cost, so far $166 billion," Dean said. "The capture of Saddam Hussein does not end our difficulties from the aftermath of the administration's war to oust him."
Predictably, however, Dean was attacked by the Democratic candidates who have not been able to match his appeal to the party's grass-roots activists. The silliest of the attacks came from the lamentable Joe Lieberman, who is, if anything, a bigger defender of the Bush administration's military adventurism abroad than the president himself.
"If (Dean) truly believes the capture of this evil man has not made America safer, then Howard Dean has put himself in his own spider hole of denial," the Connecticut senator grumbled. "I fear that the American people will wonder if they will be safer with him as president."
John Kerry took a similar shot at Dean, and a shadowy group run by former allies and aides to Kerry and Dick Gephardt began running commercials in the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina declaring that "Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy."
Actually, Dean's speech on Monday suggests that he is more than ready to compete with Bush. He has drawn the clear distinctions that Lieberman, Gephardt and Kerry - all backers of the invasion of Iraq - have failed to make. Dean says he wants to give the American people a real choice next November. Contrasting Bush's policies with his own views, Dean says that the choice should be "between a national security policy hobbled by fear and a policy strengthened by shared hopes, ... between today's new radical unilateralism and a renewal of respect for the best bipartisan traditions of American foreign policy, ... between brash boastfulness and a considered confidence that speaks to the convictions of people everywhere."
It is predictable that supporters of the Bush administration would attack Dean for drawing those distinctions and suggesting that they ought to be central to the debate in the fall of 2004.
It is shameful that other candidates who want to carry the Democratic brief into that debate would attack Dean for speaking the truth about what is going on in Iraq. Lieberman, in particular, has proven that he is not prepared to mount a credible or realistic challenge to the president. Indeed, his comments suggest that a Lieberman presidency would not depart in any serious manner from the foreign policy agenda of the Bush administration.
To his credit, Howard Dean wants to make that departure. That is why so many more Americans are excited by his candidacy than by Lieberman's.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times