Just over three years ago, then Democratic front-runner Howard Dean made a major foreign policy address here in Los Angeles designed to show the "establishment" that he understood the world and could successfully lead our nation. Having listened to his advisers, consulted many leading politicians and foreign policy experts, Governor Dean inserted one last sentence by hand into his carefully crafted speech. Just days after Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a hole in the ground in December 2003, Dean said in that speech, "The United States is no safer today, after capturing Saddam Hussein, than we were before he was captured."
Sitting in the Century Plaza Hotel with Warren Christopher as host and hundreds of onlookers focused beyond the presidential-sized media cluster, I heard those words that I'd seen him pen and I knew he was right, but wondered how the establishment geniuses who had gotten us into Iraq or acquiesced to it - and I'm not sure which is worse - would take that statement. The rest of the hour passed uneventfully, the would-be nominee impressing those who asked questions with his depth of knowledge and capacity to communicate complex issues.
There was, of course, but one headline from the day: Dean Says US No Safer After Saddam's Capture. That, coupled with other characteristically honest and direct statements as well as more than a few tactical errors, spelled the end of his promising candidacy. On a day like this, it's worth looking back to understand the present and hope for the future.
Dean's candidacy catapulted to near coronation by an otherwise disdainful media corps precisely because he alone of any major candidate opposed the war from the outset. He gained unflinching grassroots support that translated into historic amounts of money, nearly all from small donors, because he literally spoke truth to power. While on the one hand he questioned the essence of our government's social contract with its citizens by its persistent unwillingness to provide access to good healthcare for all of our people, on the other hand he questioned the president's essential competence by underscoring the lunacy in positing that just imprisoning a deposed dictator would ipso facto make America safer. Dean's rivals for the nomination, including the one who ultimately received it, joined Joe Lieberman in decrying the former Vermont Governor's naïveté for calling bullshit to the president's continued wanderings in the labyrinth of Iraq's growing civil war.
Most regrettably, this weekend's confluence of Saddam's execution with passing the 3,000 mark in the number of American soldiers dead in Iraq proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Dean was right three years ago. At the time Dean made his much-criticized remark, about 500 American's had died in Iraq. Five times that many have died since. And this does not include hundreds of dead American contractors, and tens of thousands of dead Iraqis.
We can argue about how to define "safety" in a national security sense, but losing another 2,500 soldiers since Saddam was imprisoned does not sound very safe to me. Does anyone believe that America is safer today even with even Saddam Hussein dead? If regime change was our purpose, what was or is the foreign policy objective of continued engagement in the midst of a civil war we invented? Most importantly, will the candidates in the 2008 election cycle look to the example of the members of congress and the establishment on both sides of the aisle who would not so much as criticize the president for fear of being branded weak on defense or will they look to the example of Howard Dean who had the temerity to tell the truth and face the wrath of that establishment? On that question rests the future of our republic.