Dean’s Conflicting Iraq Comments Draw Scrutiny

Times Staff Writer

As his rivals have stepped up their criticism of his stance on Iraq, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s public statements about the war are under increasing scrutiny, revealing a candidate whose off-the-cuff style has sometimes led him to take contradictory positions.

A close examination of Dean’s comments during the last 15 months shows that he has consistently voiced opposition to the United States invading Iraq without the support of the United Nations and repeatedly argued that President Bush did not make the case for going to war.

But Dean, who acknowledges that his outspoken manner often gets him in trouble, has made conflicting statements about the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and the conditions under which he would support going to war.


In a Dec. 10 news conference in Concord, N.H., Dean insisted that he “never said Saddam was a danger to the United States, ever.”

But in an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sept. 29, 2002, Dean said, “There’s no question Saddam is a threat to the U.S. and our allies.”

On the campaign trail, he frequently argues that he is the only major Democratic candidate who opposed the war.

But Dean voiced support for legislation in the fall of 2002 that, had it passed, would have ultimately given Bush authorization to invade Iraq unilaterally.

Increasingly, some of Dean’s opponents are spotlighting those differing stances as they try to slow the momentum of the Democratic front-runner. This week, both Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt charged that Dean’s inconsistency reflected his inexperience with foreign policy.

“Gov. Dean can do all the repositioning he wants, but the fundamental truth is that he made many contradictory statements about the war on Iraq and the aftermath,” Gephardt said Tuesday.

In an interview with The Times this week, Dean acknowledged that he shouldn’t have spoken in “absolutes” about whether he ever said Hussein was a threat.

“I was thinking about an imminent threat,” he said.

More broadly, Dean dismissed his rivals’ criticism of his statements on Iraq as “grasping at straws and silliness.”

“You’ve just got to stand up for what you believe in, and I did,” he said as he rode in a minivan to a fundraiser in Beverly Hills on Monday evening. “I was very clear that I did not support this.”

Dean emerged as a vociferous critic of the administration’s march toward war in the fall of 2002, when Bush was taking his case against Iraq to the U.N.

Bush “has said Saddam is an evil man,” then-Gov. Dean said during a news conference in Montpelier, Vt., on Sept. 19, 2002. “Well, there are a lot of evil people. Before our sons and daughters come home in pine boxes, I think it’s incumbent upon us to have a better reason than ‘he’s an evil man.’ ”

His strong denunciation of the president’s push toward war with Iraq, which the administration ultimately launched in March, fueled much of Dean’s rise earlier this year and separated him from the crowded pack of Democratic candidates vying for the presidency.

“Howard Dean took a bold and courageous step that wasn’t popular for anybody in politics to do so,” Hank Johnson, a county commissioner in Atlanta, said on Saturday as he and other local leaders announced their support for Dean. “When he came out against that unjust war, I was sold right there on the spot.”

Despite his antiwar image, Dean never was against an American invasion of Iraq in all circumstances.

“I’m not against attacking Saddam Hussein, but we can’t do it without a good reason, and so far the president has not made the case,” he told reporters in Montpelier on Sept. 19, 2002.

During a trip to Iowa a few weeks later, Dean said that he wanted Bush to put more effort into diplomacy with other nations.

“It’s conceivable we would have to act unilaterally, but that should not be our first option,” Dean told reporters before the state Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines.

It was there that Dean said he supported a proposal co-sponsored by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). An alternative resolution, it narrowed the rationale for war to the need to dismantle Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction instead of justifying an attack on the basis of Hussein’s human rights violations or other arguments for regime change.

The measure would have required the Bush administration to make another effort to get the U.N. Security Council to support using force to destroy Iraq’s weapons program, although it still reserved the right for the United States to act unilaterally. The proposal also asked the president to provide congressional leaders with a written determination that the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was so grave that the United States had to attack.

But as the White House secured support for a broader war resolution, support for the Biden-Lugar alternative stalled, and the measure was never formally introduced.

Kerry, who ultimately voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to use force, also said at the time that he preferred the Biden-Lugar proposal.

“I believe this approach would have provided greater clarity to the American people about the reason for going to war and the specific grant of authority,” he said on the floor of Congress on Oct. 9, 2002, a day before he and other legislators granted Bush the authority to invade Iraq.

Aides to both Biden and Lugar said that despite its emphasis on multilateralism, the proposal would have ultimately allowed the United States to invade Iraq on its own, because Bush did make an attempt to get a Security Council resolution.

“Without a question, Biden-Lugar would have granted the president the authorization to use force, with some conditions,” said Norm Kurz, Biden’s communications director.

Andy Fisher, communications director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said one of the reasons the amendment failed was that more liberal Democrats would not go along with it.

“Biden wasn’t sure he could deliver many Democrats for this resolution because it was an act of war,” said Fisher, a Lugar aide. “This would have been all the president needed.”

Dean viewed the amendment as a tactical maneuver that would have slowed the rush to war and forced the U.S. to seek international support.

Last week, he argued that the war would never have happened if the legislation had been adopted because Bush would have had to attest to the fact that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which have not been found.

“He would have had to certify why Saddam was a danger and he would have had to certify all those claims that he made that turned out not to be true,” he said in Concord last week.

But at the time, Bush was strongly arguing that Iraq posed an immediate threat to the U.S.

“Saddam Hussein’s regime is a grave and gathering danger,” the president told the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2002. “The first time we may be completely certain he has nuclear weapons is when, God forbids, he uses one.”

There is no evidence that Bush would not have given congressional leaders the same rationale for going to war that he was making publicly at the time.

Dean advisor Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institute, said that at the heart of Dean’s support for Biden-Lugar was an effort to put more constraints on the administration.

“When Biden-Lugar went down, unlike other candidates for president, Howard Dean said, ‘I don’t think we should vote for what’s on the table,’ ” Daalder said.

“There is no inconsistency. No one has ever accused Howard Dean of being in favor of the war.”

Thomas Mann, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institute, agreed that Biden-Lugar could have dampened the momentum for war and ultimately allowed time for a diplomatic solution.

“If they had hung to that proposal, war might well have been averted,” Mann said. “On the other hand, there was no guarantee of it.”

Although Dean’s challengers have pounced on the inconsistency between his opposition to the war and his support for the Biden-Lugar proposal, some experts said it was unlikely that argument would shake the image many voters have of Dean.

“He’s been such an eloquent speaker on the antiwar position that whatever he’s said, that is what he is stamped with,” said John Hulsman, a senior foreign policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

That sentiment was echoed by Nancy Hull, an attorney from Overland Park, Kan., who drove to Winterset, Iowa, last week to hear Dean speak.

Dean, she said, was the only one among the major Democratic candidates who stood his ground against a war she believes is misguided.

“He spotted it before any of the others,” Hull said, “and that’s what matters.”


Times researcher Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.


(Begin Text of Infobox)

Dean’s comments on the war in Iraq

On whether Saddam Hussein was a danger to the U.S.:

* “There’s no question Saddam is a threat to the U.S. and our allies. The question is, is he an immediate threat? The president has not yet made the case for that.” -- “Face the Nation,” Sept. 29, 2002

* “Is the security of the United States affected by what’s going on in Iraq today? ... I don’t believe it is.” -- “Meet the Press,” March 9, 2003

* “Now we’re stuck there, because there was no serious threat to the United States from Saddam Hussein, but there is a threat from an Iraq with Al Qaeda in it or with a fundamentalist Shiite regime.” -- debate, Durham, N.H., Dec. 9, 2003

* “I never said Saddam was a danger to the United States, ever. Saddam was a regional danger.” -- news conference, Concord, N.H., Dec. 10, 2003

* “The capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer.” -- foreign policy speech, Los Angeles, Dec. 14, 2003

On whether the U.S. should ever invade:

* “I’m not against attacking Saddam Hussein, but we can’t do it without a good reason, and so far the president has not made the case.” -- news conference, Sept. 19, 2002

* “We may very well have to go into Iraq. What is the rush? Why can’t we take the time to get our allies on board? Why do we have to do everything in a unilateral way? It’s not good for the future of the foreign policy of this country to be the bully on the block and tell people we’re going to do what we want to do.” -- “Face the Nation,” Sept. 29, 2002

* “It’s conceivable we would have to act unilaterally, but that should not be our first option,” -- Des Moines Register, Oct. 6, 2002

* “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.” -- Associated Press, Feb. 5, 2003

* “I believed that the proper way to remove him, should he need to be removed, was through the United Nations. And I never wavered from that.” --news conference, Concord, N.H., Dec. 10, 2003


Compiled by Times researcher Vicki Gallay


Los Angeles Times