Remember Howard Dean? Early last December he was riding high. Having been dismissed early in the campaign by even his fans as a hopeless cause, he'd managed to parlay a wave of anti-Bush sentiment and novel Internet organizing into front-runner status for the Democratic nomination. Still, two interconnected questions remained. First, could he beat George W. Bush? And second, did he have what it takes to run a campaign likely to focus on foreign-policy questions?
On December 15, 2003, Dean had a chance to dispel those doubts. His strong showing had allowed the campaign to attract interest from many of the Democratic Party's foreign-policy heavies, who'd busied themselves working with Dean's staff to compose an address underlining the candidate's basically centrist, mainstream convictions. His support for the Gulf War and those in Kosovo and Afghanistan, along with his advocacy of a tough stance on North Korea, were to be on display. The public would see a new Dean (or, rather, a new side of the same Dean who'd been there all along) -- the sensible, moderate Dean the voters of Vermont had known for years. The speech, delivered to the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, was his shot at the big time. And he blew it.
Not with anything in the carefully prepared text but with an ad-libbed piece of red meat thrown to his angry base. "The capture of Saddam [Hussein]," Dean said, "has not made America safer."
Good and decent people everywhere were outraged. Joe Lieberman said Dean had crawled into a "spider hole of denial." John Kerry called the remark "more proof that all the advisers in the world can't give Howard Dean the military and foreign-policy experience, leadership skills, or diplomatic temperament necessary to lead this country through dangerous times." Dick Gephardt was more restrained, merely accusing Dean of "playing politics with foreign policy."
And those were the Democrats. The Republican National Committee's Ed Gillespie said, "Those who say these things would return us to a weak and indecisive foreign policy that would only embolden those who seek to do us harm," all but accusing Dean of being in league with the terrorists. A small number of voices in the media stood up for Dean, but who were we to contend with the awesome national-security knowledge of Sam Donaldson and Chris Matthews? Some, like The New Republic's Jonathan Chait, conceded that on "a narrow, technical level" it was perfectly true that Hussein's capture did not make us safer. Still, he was upset. The remark, Chait wrote, "demonstrates once again Dean's incurable habit of handing Karl Rove the rope he'd use to hang Dean if nominated." Besides which, he continued, while Americans who live in America -- that's most of us! -- might not have been made safer, there are "many Americans in Iraq who are safer now that Saddam's out of his hole."
Indeed. How could Dean have been so silly? You remember, don't you, that the insurgency was nothing but a handful of ex-Baathist, die-hard, dead-enders on the Hussein payroll ready to roll over with their fearless leader rotting in an American jail? That was the story, right? Or was this the story where the Iraqis were bubbling over with enthusiasm for the American occupation but too scared to come out and express their love for fear that Hussein might return to power? I remember that one, too. And, of course, there are the weapons of mass destruction. According to one theory current at the time, Iraqi military scientists were champing at the bit in late 2003 to tell us where all those stockpiles were. So how come we hadn't heard already? Again, fear of big bad Hussein lurking in the spider hole. Once he was captured they would sing.
Many problems -- the insurgency, America's diminished international credibility, and America's legitimacy problem in Iraq -- all with one solution: capture Hussein. And that crazy Howard Dean couldn't see it. Even John Kerry knew better. It was the beginning of the end for the Dean campaign; his presidential dreams collapsed in Iowa a little more than a month later. And good riddance.
That was then. I don't know about you, but I don't feel any safer than I did last December. I'm sure the citizens of Madrid don't, and I hear they're watching their backs in Warsaw and Rome. What's more, our boys in Iraq certainly don't seem much safer. The Sunni insurgency wasn't so much as slowed by Hussein's capture. (The weapons of mass destruction, needless to say, still don't exist.) It just burned on as before until four contractors were brutally murdered in the streets of Fallujah. After that, we sent in the Marines, killed some of the bad guys, and got some of our guys killed before putting an end to the fighting by, in essence, surrendering. Now a general from the old regime patrols Fallujah at the head of an army loyal to him, not us or The New Iraq™, containing many "former" insurgents.
The other branch of Sunni anti-Americanism in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, doesn't seem to have gone away, either. Nor is the Iraqi Governing Council's much safer: The last person to hold the rotating presidency got blown up just outside the “Green Zone.”
One prediction Dean's detractors made did come true. With Hussein in jail, the Shia no longer had to fear he'd come back to power and felt free to reveal their true feelings. Many of them, as it turns out, are backing Muqtada al-Sadr's rebellion against the U.S. occupation. He's the second-most popular figure in Iraq. And Paul Bremer isn't No. 3, either -- the latest polls show that 80 percent of Iraqis want us gone.
To make a long story short, Dean -- and, if I may say so, I -- was right. But why bring this up today? Just to brag? Well, yes, to brag a little, but for a more important reason as well. We seem to be repeating the very same sort of mistake that led so many to believe that Hussein's capture would lead to a significant improvement in the security situation. Just as taking the Hussein family out of play did nothing to dim the tide of Sunni rebelliousness, neither will achieving the current tactical goal of eliminating al-Sadr do much to end the Sadrist movement. One important fact little mentioned in the media is that the movement's leader -- Muqtada's father -- had already been killed several years ago by Hussein himself. Nevertheless, the movement persisted, a symbol of deep Shia disaffection from the Baath regime.
As it was then, so it is today. The problem is not the man but the movement he leads and the sentiments he represents. Killing Muqtada will do nothing to dim those sentiments, while the damage done to holy sites in the course of pursuing him will do a great deal to inflame them. The president urges us to stay the course and wait for the return of sovereignty at the end of next month. The present course, however, contains nothing whatsoever aimed at changing the fundamental fact that Iraq's Arab population has grown thoroughly disillusioned with the United States and its policies. That disaffection, and not the leaders of the disaffected, must be the target of any effective policy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.