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"While President Bush still has the support of the majority of Americans, there is a backlash," David Gergen, a former adviser to four U.S. presidents, told the Voice. "Dean is giving voice to the backlash. He's come to symbolize opposition to the president's policies in Iraq, and he's riding that wave very smartly."
Dean's fans thrill at the bravura of his attacks on Bush and his willingness to claim progressiveif not politically utopiansocial ground on issues like universal health care and civil unions for gays and lesbians. Pundits and journos love him too. The shortish, prickly doctor from Park Avenue with the barbed one-liners livens up the otherwise soporific Democratic field, and he sells papers.
And they all more or less agree that the conflict in Iraq was the ship that brought Dean this far. "The anti-war position is very important," said Maxine Isaacs, who teaches a class at Harvard's Kennedy School on the 2004 presidential race. "It could be a factor in who gets the nomination, the threshold question for leadership."
Last week 10,000 people showed up in New York's Bryant Park to size up the former governor. Under the yellow "Free Palestine" banner at the rear of the rally, the activists looked lonely. Or slightly lost. As he watched one of the opening acts, Jacques Englestein, a member of Jews Against the Occupation, allowed that Dean "is a step up from Bush."
"But there are a lot of caveats."
The candidate's anti-war stance may have filled the park, but the broader foreign policy debate to comeone of two areas, along with the economy, that Dean recently said "every president must get right"will be about more than just Iraq. And his positions on a variety of issues are far from clear. Part of this problem is Dean's remarkable early success. A bright light shines on his campaign, forcing his staffers to consider questions they might not have otherwise faced till the fall.
Usually at this point in the campaign, said Gergen, "it doesn't get into specifics. If that were the case, [John] Kerry would be doing much better."
Dean's campaign handlers will stay away from the trickiest foreign policy questions for now, an approach seasoned advisers think wise.
"If I were him, I'd veer away from the Middle East debate until he's forced into it," said one former Democratic adviser, who wished to remain anonymous. "He just doesn't need to talk about it." Dean was unavailable to be interviewed for this story, and his campaign staff could not answer a number of foreign policy questions submitted by the Voice.
Veering away from the Middle East, for instance, worries some progressives, who say that apart from his anti-war positions, Dean's foreign policy agenda doesn't represent any substantive ambition or new direction. In his statements on the region, they say, he has shown a willingness to follow fashion rather than conviction. These critics point to statements made by Dean about Saudi Arabia and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as proof that inside the insurgent there is an unimaginative centrist just waiting to get out.
When you're untested in foreign policy," said Nancy Soderberg, a former UN ambassador and foreign policy adviser to Bill Clinton, "you need to demonstrate that you know it. In this case, it will be Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terrorism." Soderberg says that Clinton "did this well" in 1992, with speeches challenging George H. Bush on U.S. policy toward Haiti, Bosnia, and China.
"You need to take the fight to the administration," she said. "Dean will have to stake out critical positions."
Saudi Arabia and several of its neighbors have provided Dean's campaign with what he must believe is such a position. In a June speech at the Council on Foreign Relations and one of the first times he detailed his foreign policy positions, Dean said "the United States must reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and we must have a president who is willing to confront the Iranians, the Syrians, the Saudis, and others who send money to Hamas, and finance a worldwide network of fundamentalist schools which teach small children to hate Americans, Christians, and Jews."
Dean's campaign confirmed that the argument set out abovethat American oil money finances terrorists, which is a good reason for oil independenceis indeed what he meant to say. Dean did not specify what roles Syria and Iran, which do not provide oil to the United States, play in that equation, but in more recent comments on the subject he usually just singles out Saudi Arabia.
"I find [it] problematic to talk only about the need to end dependence on Middle East oil," said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies and frequent writer on the Middle East. Bennis, who agrees that there is a need to talk about the Saudi government's ties to militant groups, nonetheless finds Dean's statement "an easy way to talk about the region, and [an] easy [way] to slip into an anti-Arab approach to it."
His Council on Foreign Relations remarks were simply a variation on his first major foreign policy address, at Drake University in February.
"Three decades after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo," he said, "the United States continues to consume 40 percent of the world's oil. That is a failure of American policy and an unacceptable danger to the American people. Because it means we are sending billions of dollars annually to countries financing radical educational systems that teach young people to hate Christians, Jews, and Americans. That is crazy, because we know these schools are prime recruiting grounds for terrorists."
"We're not dependent on oil from the Middle East because they've blackmailed us," said David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute. "The problem is our addiction to overconsumption of hydrocarbons."
Dean's commitment to energy conservation, renewable resources, and the environment is well known. But his attempts to link such efforts to national security strike some as opportunism.
"His description of Saudi Arabia is simplistic, but so is everybody else's," said Mack. "This is a cheap shot that all these politicians engage in."
Maybe the campaign is not yet getting sophisticated advice."If he becomes the nominee," said Gergen, "the heavyweights of foreign policy will gravitate toward him." And Gergen admits that as the "heavyweights" join the campaign, progressives will probably be left out in the cold.
"Dean's main foreign policy credential is his passion toward opposing the war and the drive toward empire,"said Bennis. "In that context, it matters what else he stands for."
Early in his campaign, Dean stirred controversy discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part of this, of course, is just the nature of debate about the conflict.
But much of the confusion stems from an interview he conducted with The Forward newspaper last fall. When asked to characterize his opinions on the Middle East, he said, "At one time the Peace Now view was important but now Israel is under enormous pressure. We have to stop terrorism before peace negotiations . . . I don't do things for political reasons. I'm very loyal to my friends."
Dean said that his views of the conflict "are much closer to AIPAC"the hawkish American-Israel Public Affairs Committee than to the Jewish coexistence lobby Peace Now.
Activists started an Internet petition to get Dean to explain his views, which they see as a troubling predictor of future foreign policy. Less scrutinized, but perhaps no less important, is his thumbnail ethnic analysis of the Palestinians.
"The Palestinians have assets that are often misunderstood," he said that day at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They have a high level of education. Palestinian women play a more significant role in government than in almost any other Arab society, and a large number of Palestinians have significant experience with democracy, having lived in Europe, the United States, and of course a million-strong Israeli-Arab population having lived in democracy for over 50 years."
It is possible to parse any politician's speeches and find mistakes, and there are those who say some of Dean's gaffes don't necessarily augur badly.
James Zogby, head of Washington's Arab-American Institute (AAI), says he was initially troubled by Dean's response to one of his questions at the Council on Foreign Relations. Zogby had asked Dean how he would handle comments from the religious right disparaging Arabs and Muslims. Dean replied that he would "stand up" against it but that he also felt "it should not have to be a white Christian president of the United States whose burden that is."
"We've got to ensure," he said, "that moderate Muslims everywhere stand up to the extremists and terrorists in their ranks."
In subsequent conversations with Dean, Zogby said the candidate apologized, and explained there was no ill intent. Dean will be speaking at an October AAI conference.
Jacques Englestein found fault with Dean for "supporting Israel, but not supporting the Palestinians." He also criticized the candidate for not speaking out against the so-called separation wallthe wall the Israeli government is building ostensibly to deter attacks by militants. Many have accused the Sharon government of using the wall to annex more Palestinian land. Even George Bush, in a joint appearance with Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, said, "It is very difficult to develop confidence [between the two sides] with a wall snaking through the West Bank."
"Security is a great thing," said Englestein. "But this is a land grab."
Publicly, Dean has said only that "some degree of separation between Israelis and Palestinians is probably necessary." He is expected to take a more defined stand on the issue.
And Englestein is optimistic that his group's presence at the rally and their attempts to contact the campaign may yet bear some fruit. "Our job here today," said Englestein, "is to make sure these ideas percolate up."
The former governor from Vermont is a foreign policy work in progress. The broad strokes articulated in his speeches include a vision for the restoration of American multilateralism, increased international cooperation, respect for the global environment, and a bid to unify the world. Considered from a lofty perch, Dean promises a different world than the one delivered by George Bush and his colleagues in government.
But the devil, of course, is in the details. While Dean will spend the rest of his campaign focused squarely on the challenge to his right, the left certainly won't settle for a pretender.
"It is not progressive to say the Pentagon budget is off-limits to cuts," says Jeff Cohen, the communications director for Representative Dennis Kucinich, who is also running for president. In most polls, Kucinich trails the other Democratic candidates. "It's not progressive to say that you want more troops in Iraq, and that we're stuck there. It's not progressive to say the embargo on Cuba, which is an absurd policy which persisted for decades, should continue."
And while Dean's policies in the Middle East will continue to draw attentionand perhaps serve as a litmus test for his integritythose invested in the region may well decide that Howard Dean, while not perfect, is the next best thing.