The New Republic Online


Credible Alternative

by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 07.09.03

The Democratic candidates for president are painfully aware that, after September 11, it's not just the economy, stupid. The various candidates have taken great pains to demonstrate expertise on national security and foreign policy issues as well. A few months ago, for example, four of the established candidates leapt at the chance to publish their musings in Foreign Policy, with mixed results. (Kerry was surprisingly good; Gephardt was predictably awful.)

Democrats are not only trying to burnish their own foreign policy credentials; they're using the issue to tear down their opponents for the nomination. And, as Howard Dean has increased his poll numbers and the size of his campaign war chest in recent months, he's increasingly become the focus of those efforts. Perhaps the low point (or the high point, depending your perspective) came in April, when Dean conceded that "[w]e won't always have the strongest military" on the planet. A Kerry spokesman promptly pointed out that such an utterance "raises serious questions about [Dean's] capacity to serve as Commander-in-Chief."

That may have been a bit dramatic. But the question is worth asking: Can Howard Dean be a credible foreign policy leader?

No question, Dean has made a few gaffes. He sounded worse than churlish when he said in April, "We've gotten rid of [Saddam], and I suppose that's a good thing." In his announcement speech last month, he declared that "we destroyed repressive communist regimes without firing a shot," which would come as a surprise to Korean War veterans. During his recent "Meet the Press" appearance, he couldn't pin down the number of soldiers in the U.S. military to the nearest million. Not an auspicious beginning.

Still, some of these attacks have been unfair. Kerry's team was adroit in morphing Dean's worry about a decline in America's relative power into an accusation that Dean would approve of such a decline as president. Taken in context, it's clear that Dean's comment referred to the inexorable tides of demographics and economic development--hardly matters under presidential control. And the point underlying it--that the United States should play by the current set of global rules to ensure those rules are still around in an uncertain future--has a respectable intellectual pedigree. As for flunking Tim Russert's pop quiz, the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would attest that such exams are hardly the best format for gauging a candidate's foreign policy mettle.

More importantly, Dean's foreign policy views--laid out most clearly in a June 25 speech before the Council on Foreign Relations--bear a marked similarity to the mainstream Democratic candidates. All, including Dean, support some variant of liberal institutionalism--i.e., working closely with democratic allies, strengthening multilateral institutions, opposing preventive wars, and investing more in homeland defense. And Dean, like the rest of the candidates, extols Harry S Truman and John F. Kennedy as his guiding stars on foreign policy matters. In his speeches, he emphasizes the combination of their hawkishness in the face of illiberal threats and multilateralism as the preferred method for combating such threats. Dean's emphasis on Kennedy's prudence during the Cuban missile crisis was a constant refrain of leading Democrats in late 2002.

Furthermore, Dean's opposition on Iraq does not mean he is opposed to the overseas deployment of U.S. forces. He has been refreshingly candid in advocating a more active nation-building role for the United States, and has advocated sending more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan for that purpose. This week he strongly supported the deployment of U.S. peacekeeping forces to Liberia as part of a multilateral intervention.

Dean's specific criticisms of the Bush administration are also similar to the rest of the field's. Like Kerry, Dean has pounced on the administration for neglecting North Korea's nuclear program while obsessing over Iraq. Dean's attacks on Bush's arrogance plainly echo John Edwards's description of the administration as "gratuitously unilateralist." Echoing Bob Graham, Dean argues that the war on Al Qaeda has suffered because of a misplaced focus on Saddam Hussein.

Dean substantively distinguishes himself from the first-tier candidates in what are really only two ways. Obviously the first is his persistent, vociferous opposition to the war in Iraq. The upshot, of course, is that while Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, and Gephardt all have to engage in contortions of one kind or another to reconcile their votes on Iraq with their opposition to Bush, Dean can look like an oasis of clarity.

The second distinction is that Dean sounds more protectionist than most of his rivals on international economic issues. In November 2002 he argued that "our free trade policies have also had the effect of hollowing out our industrial capacity, and most worrisome, undermining our own middle class." Ignoring for the moment whether or not the statement is true (it's not), linking domestic hardships to the global economy is classic populism--the kind of stance that should sound familiar to Gephardt supporters. Dean likewise echoes Gephardt in expressing fears of a race to the bottom in labor and environmental standards. In his official announcement speech he spoke of a "profound fear and distrust of multinational corporations."

These two foreign policy differences clearly push Dean to the left of his mainstream rivals. And, taken in toto, Dean's worldview does give off a powerful whiff of populism. But it'd be a mistake to see it as na´ve. If Dean's rivals want to attack his foreign policy views, they're going to have to do it by challenging their substance rather than the credibility of the candidate expressing them.

Links to relevant documentation and further information can be found here.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


Divide and Rule
Why the candidates aren't pouncing on the missing WMD.

Identity Theft
The campaigns accuse each other of stealing.

Jonathan Cohn rates the Dems on health care.

Double Scoop
Is Joe Lieberman doomed to repeat Scoop Jackson's mistakes?
The former Vermont governor's secret weapon.

Southern Exposure
The Democratic field reinvents itself over a long weekend in South Carolina.

Dean's List
Howard Dean reacquaints himself with his moderate record.


Copyright 2003, The New Republic