Ballot Box

Absolute Howard

Dean’s national security problem.

A man who knows his mind, too well

For months, I’ve been scratching my head over the Howard Dean problem. On domestic issues, Dean beats the rest of the presidential field hands down. He knows the nooks and crannies of all the policy debates. He’s been an executive. He’s principled where he ought to be principled and pragmatic where he ought to be pragmatic. He hurls fire and brimstone with the best of them. He isn’t one of those wishy-washy liberals who inspire contempt on both the left and the right. And he states his views in a way that everyone can understand and most people can support.

The problem is national security. It isn’t just Dean’s opposition to the war in Iraq, which is eminently defensible. It’s subtler and broader. Every time Dean talks about foreign affairs, he gives off a whiff of hostility or indifference to American military power.

Wednesday morning, I went to see him discuss this subject before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. One advantage of being there was seeing things the cameras don’t catch, such as the pair of shorts that Dean’s media consultant, Steve McMahon, was wearing below his suit jacket. (McMahon had a knee injury, but the rest of us would gladly have shed our pants in the heat of the room.) The other advantage was clarifying that whiff Dean gives off. I think I now understand his national security problem. It isn’t weakness. It’s arrogance.

Dean made a few elementary mistakes during the Q and A, such as calling Bush’s isolation of North Korea “isolationism.” He also espoused several liberal fallacies: that an alliance of democratic ideals “defeated world communism without firing a shot,” that President Clinton bequeathed President Bush “momentum” toward Middle East peace, and that al-Qaida “used our loss of focus to rebuild their terrorist networks, as recent deadly attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco demonstrate.” But again, what stung most was his tone.

Dean complained, as he has done before, that “instead of the humility we were promised, this administration has acted with unparalleled arrogance and disregard for the concerns of others.” It’s an odd critique, coming from the most headstrong Democrat in the race. Dean’s backbone is his greatest asset. The last question he took Wednesday was from Jim Zogby, the president of the Arab-American Institute, who asked what Dean would do if his supporters demonized Muslims, as some of Bush’s conservative Christian supporters have done. Dean said he would repudiate such remarks. But he added: “It should not have to be a white Christian president of the United States whose burden that is. We have got to ensure that moderate Muslims everywhere stand up to the extremists and terrorists in their ranks.” That’s as close as Dean has come to a Sister Souljah moment.

I used to wonder why Dean’s confidence deserted him when it came to defense and foreign policy. Two months ago, at a forum hosted by the Children’s Defense Fund, Dean said of Saddam Hussein, “We’ve gotten rid of him, and I suppose that’s a good thing, but there’s going to be a long period where the United States is going to need to be maintained in Iraq, and that’s going to cost American taxpayers a lot of money that could be spent on schools and kids.” I was one of many viewers who choked on the words I suppose. How exactly was getting rid of Saddam not a good thing? Why the need for supposition?

Wednesday, Dean again laced his remarks with caveats. “Increasing numbers of people in Europe, Asia, and in our own hemisphere cite America not as the strongest pillar of freedom and democracy but, somewhat unfairly, as a threat to peace,” he said. Of Iraq, he added, “Although we may have won the war, we are failing to win the peace.” Somewhat? May have? Why the uncertainty?

What dawned on me as I stood in the room with Dean, watching his stony expression, is that these comments don’t reflect uncertainty. They reflect overconfidence. Long before the Iraq war, Dean made up his mind that it would be a failure and would rightly alarm other countries. In fact, the war was a swift success (even if the peace isn’t), and foreign depictions of the United States as a bloodthirsty empire are lies. The reason Dean inserts qualifiers such as “somewhat,” “may have,” and “I suppose” is that he hates to concede anything. That’s his story, and he’s stickin’ to it.

“Some in the Democratic Party claim that a candidate who questioned the war cannot lead the party in the great national debate that lies ahead,” Dean noted. Yet “four of the major candidates for the Democratic nomination supported the president’s pre-emptive strike resolution five months before we went to war, without, as it turned out, knowing the facts. I stood up against what this administration was doing, even when 70 percent of the American people supported the war, because I believed that the evidence was not there. I refused to change my view, and as it turned out, I was right. … A president must be tough, patient, and willing to take a course of action based on evidence and not based on ideology.”

That’s Howard Dean. He claims to have questioned the war, when in fact he answered it pre-emptively with a categorical no. He faults his opponents for supporting the war without knowing the whole truth, though he opposed the war in equal ignorance. He says the facts proved him right, though he didn’t have them beforehand. He rejects ideology but brags that he never equivocated. He’s as certain as any hawk, and just as dangerous.