Ballot Box

The Worldview of Howard Dean

His instincts on foreign policy and national security.

Slate is running several series of short features explaining who the 2004 presidential candidates are, what they’re saying, and where they propose to take the country. The first series summarized their personal and professional backgrounds. The second series analyzed their buzzwords. The third series outlined what each candidate would focus on as president. This series sketches how they would manage America’s role in the world.

After communism collapsed, American voters lost interest in defense and foreign policy. But those subjects can consume most of a president’s time, and 9/11 returned them to the forefront. It’s difficult to anticipate which hot spots a candidate would have to deal with as president, but it’s possible to get a sense of how he approaches war, diplomacy, trade, and other challenges abroad. This series pieces together a picture of each candidate’s instincts based on his words and his record. Today’s subject is Howard Dean.

Counterinsurgency: In 1974, while exploring Southeast Asia, Dean’s brother Charlie was arrested by Communist rebels in Laos, evidently on suspicion of espionage. The rebels were backed by Vietnam and opposed by the United States, which listed Charlie as POW/MIA. The U.S. Embassy to Laos pledged to push for Charlie’s release, but he was executed. The rebels won the war and became the current Laotian government. In 2002, Howard Dean said he thought “the North Vietnamese basically ordered [Charlie] killed.” Dean said he didn’t believe his brother had been spying, “but for all I know he was in the CIA.” Dean added, “We were bombing the hell out of [Laos]. We were denying we were bombing them while they were denying they were holding any American prisoners.”

War and unilateralism: Dean caught fire in the 2004 presidential race based on his opposition to the Iraq war. But in July 2003, he cautioned that he had “told the peace people not to fall in love with me.” He claims to have supported every U.S. military intervention after Vietnam and before Iraq. In August 2002, he said he would support a unilateral invasion of Iraq if President Bush could “show that there’s evidence [Saddam] has either atomic or biological weapons and can deliver.” Dean ended up opposing the war on the grounds that Bush 1) should have worked through the United Nations to disarm Iraq (or to depose Saddam, if Iraq failed to comply with inspections); 2) should have given more consideration to the concerns of U.S. allies; and 3) never should have claimed that Iraq presented an imminent biological or nuclear threat to the United States.

After the war, Dean said, “I am not a pacifist. I believe there are times when pre-emptive force is justified, but there has to be an immediate threat, and there just wasn’t in this case.” However, when U.S. forces killed Saddam Hussein’s sons, Dean remarked, “It’s a victory for the Iraqi people … but it doesn’t have any effect on whether we should or shouldn’t have had a war. … I think in general the ends do not justify the means.”

Defense spending: On June 22, 2003, after rival candidate Dennis Kucinich proposed cuts in military programs, Dean replied, “I don’t agree with Dennis about cutting the Pentagon budget when we’re in the middle of difficulty with terror attacks.”