High-octane stuff; but Dean has been more cautious on Iraq than his enthusiasts realize. For example, in that same February speech, he went on to say, "I do not believe the president should have been given a green light to drive our nation into conflict ... without a requirement that we at least try first to work through the United Nations." That sentence contains some artful phrasing.
In reality, Dean favored an alternative war resolution (sponsored by Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind.) that differed little from the one that passed. True, Biden-Lugar called on Bush to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the war, but it did not require Bush to obtain such a resolution, if the Security Council balked. In other words, Dean favored a congressional resolution authorizing exactly the course that Bush took.
"Howard, I think you're all over the lot on this issue," said Rep. Dick Gephardt in a November debate. "All over the lot" is a bit of an exaggeration: Dean made no secret of his opposition to military action after Congress gave Bush a green light. Still, Dean's anti-war posture was less clear-cut—or, if you prefer, more nuanced—than his reputation and rhetoric suggest.
In hindsight, Dean's position was not coherent, but neither was it pacifist or hard-left. Dean touted his support for the 1991 Persian Gulf War and for Bush's attack on Afghanistan. He took care not to renounce unilateralism. "I am not among those who say that America should never use its armed forces unilaterally," he said in his February speech—one of several such statements. In an Associated Press interview that month, he said: "I am not in the no-way camp. Definitely not. I think Saddam must be disarmed. The problem I have is that I have a deep reluctance to attack a country unilaterally without a pretty high standard of proof."
Dean said he believed Saddam "may well" possess chemical and biological weapons. What he had not seen, he maintained, was sufficient evidence that such weapons posed an imminent threat. Shortly after Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a speech to the United Nations, presented the administration's evidence of the Iraqi menace, Dean said: "I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the secretary, but rather by its sketchiness." Going to war, Dean said, requires either an international consensus or smoking-gun evidence of an imminent threat—not necessarily both, but one or the other. The Bush administration had neither.
Dean's position was incoherent because it called for containing Saddam through continued inspections, which continued only because of the threat of unilateral force that Dean would have withdrawn. That contradiction will come back to bite him if the Bush administration looks triumphant in Iraq next summer and fall. Bush will say, "If Howard Dean were president of the United States, Saddam Hussein would still be president of Iraq." Dean will go down.