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Beyond the Mainstream
Thursday, December 18, 2003; Page A34
IN recent days a half-dozen leading Democrats have delivered major speeches on foreign policy. Mostly, they follow a similar track. Presidential candidates Howard Dean, John Edwards, John F. Kerry, Joseph I. Lieberman and Wesley K. Clark and shadow candidate Hillary Clinton accept many of the goals of the Bush administration but diverge sharply on the means to achieve them. All agree that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the danger that they will be acquired by terrorists, are critical threats. All chastise Mr. Bush for damaging U.S. alliances and all promise to rebuild them, while "internationalizing" Iraq's postwar reconstruction.
Yet there are important differences between the Democratic front-runner, Howard Dean, and the other five. In his speech Monday, Mr. Dean alone portrayed the recruiting of allies for Iraq as a means to "relieve the burden on the U.S." -- that is, to quickly draw down American forces. Only he omitted democracy from his goals for Iraq and the Middle East. And only Mr. Dean made the extraordinary argument that the capture of Saddam Hussein "has not made Americans safer."
Mr. Dean's carefully prepared speech was described as a move toward the center, but in key ways it shifted him farther from the mainstream. A year ago Mr. Dean told a television audience that "there's no question that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States and to our allies," but last weekend he declared that "I never said Saddam was a danger to the United States." Mr. Dean has at times argued that the United States must remain engaged to bring democracy to Iraq, yet the word is conspicuously omitted from the formula of "stable self-government" he now proposes. The former Vermont governor has compiled a disturbing record of misstatements and contradictions on foreign policy; maybe he will shift yet again, this time toward more responsible positions.
Mr. Dean's exceptionalism, however, is not limited to Iraq. It can be found in his support for limiting the overseas deployments of the National Guard -- a potentially radical change in the U.S. defense posture -- and in his readiness to yield to the demands of North Korea's brutal communist dictatorship, which, he told The Post's Glenn Kessler, "ought to be able to enter the community of nations." Mr. Dean says he would end all funding for missile defense, a program supported by the Clinton administration, and also has broken with Mr. Clinton's successful trade policies, embracing protectionism. Sadly, on trade his position is shared by every Democratic candidate except Mr. Lieberman (and Ms. Clinton).
It is Mr. Dean's position on Iraq, however, that would be hardest to defend in a general election campaign. Many will agree with the candidate that "the administration launched the war in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with inadequate planning, insufficient help and at unbelievable cost." But most Americans understand Saddam Hussein for what he was: a brutal dictator who stockpiled and used weapons of mass destruction, who plotted to seize oil supplies on which the United States depends, who hated the United States and once sought to assassinate a former president; whose continuing hold on power forced thousands of American troops to remain in the Persian Gulf region for a decade; who even in the months before his overthrow signed a deal to buy North Korean missiles he could have aimed at U.S. bases. The argument that this tyrant was not a danger to the United States is not just unfounded but ludicrous.
Mr. Dean may be arguing Saddam Hussein's insignificance in part because he is unwilling to make a commitment to Iraq's future. He appears eager to extract the United States from the Middle East as quickly as possible, rather than encourage political and economic liberalization. His speech suggests a significant retreat by the United States from the promotion of its interests and values in the world. Mr. Edwards laid out a detailed and ambitious plan to prevent the spread of dangerous nuclear materials; Mr. Clark is proposing a new Atlantic Charter under which the United States would build an alliance to take on the transformation of the Middle East, among other initiatives. Mr. Dean's biggest idea is to triple U.S. contributions to a global AIDS fund -- an essential but narrow cause in which the United States would allow international institutions to take the lead. His most serious departure from the Democratic mainstream is not his opposition to the war. It is his apparent readiness to shrink U.S. ambitions, in Iraq and elsewhere, at a time when the safety of Americans is very much at stake.