Anti-war candidate Howard Dean (search) said Monday "the capture of Saddam has not made America safer," directly contradicting President Bush and drawing the wrath of two Democratic presidential rivals.
Dean and several Democratic hopefuls sought to burnish their foreign policy credentials, offering prescriptions for U.S. policy toward the Middle East, North Korea, China and the global war on terrorism. Bush overshadowed the field, declaring at a White House news conference that America's "peace and security" were heightened by the apprehension of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, Rep. Dick Gephardt, Sen. John Edwards, Sen. John Kerry and Dean promised that, if elected, they would work closely with allies to share the costs and risks of fighting terrorism. They agreed that Saddam's capture gives Bush a chance to improve tattered relations.
A forceful proponent of the war, Sen. Joe Lieberman, said Dean is in a "spider hole of denial," a reference to Saddam's ignominious hideout and Dean's assessment of the capture's impact.
Kerry said the front-runner's speech "is still 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."
In separate addresses, Dean, Edwards and Clark also took aim at Bush by saying the United States must pay more attention to Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization behind the Sept. 11 attacks. All three suggested that the illicit spread of nuclear weaponry is a greater threat to the United States than Saddam ever was.
"We should be exercising every option we have to stop the spread of deadly weapons before war becomes our only option," Edwards said in a speech in Iowa, site of the Jan. 19 caucuses.
Dean and Edwards pledged to triple funds used to secure Russia's nuclear arsenal, amid fears about its security since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Edwards and Clark threatened sanctions against nations that seek weapons of mass destruction in defiance of international accords.
In the first presidential election since the Sept. 11 attacks, national security looms large, a sharp change from the post-Cold War emphasis on domestic issues. Democrats need to show they are tough on terrorism, not just on Bush.
"Our most important challenge will be to address the most dangerous threat of all: catastrophic terrorism using weapons of mass destruction," Dean said in his speech to the Pacific Council (search) in Los Angeles. "Here, where the stakes are highest, the current administration has, remarkably, done the least."
The capture of Saddam posed a political problem for Dean, whose candidacy has been fueled by his opposition to the war. The former Vermont governor did not back away from his stance, and argued that Saddam's capture alone won't secure America unless Bush or the next president takes a broader approach to fighting terrorism.
"The capture of Saddam is a good thing which I hope very much will keep our soldiers in Iraq and around the world safer," Dean said. "But the capture of Saddam has not made America safer."
Later, in a question-and-answer session, he added, "Saddam is a frightful person and I'm delighted that he's gone. But there are many frightful people in the world."
Sensitive to criticism that his foreign policy record is thin, Dean pledged to bolster U.S. troops, particularly terrorism-fighting special forces, and U.S. intelligence. He faulted Bush for failing to deal with North Korea, saying, "this president is responsible for the fact that North Korea has become a nuclear power."
Dean's campaign announced a list of prominent foreign affairs advisers, including Anthony Lake (search), national security adviser in the Clinton White House.
Dean team's first task will be to help the candidate smooth an uneven record on foreign policy. He has misspoken (calling Latin America a hemisphere), reversed course (he supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (search) as governor, but opposes it now) and has been careless with his rhetoric (he said the United States would not "take sides" in the Middle East, a slap to longtime ally Israel).
Gephardt, the Missouri lawmaker who backed Bush's war resolution, accused Dean of trying to reposition his anti-war policy in light of Saddam's capture. "That to me is playing politics with foreign policy," he told reporters in Milwaukee.
Clark displayed his four-star credentials at The Hague, where he testified in the U.N. war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and later met with NATO leaders.
"Iraq is still in danger of becoming a failed state," he said. "A failed state would be a stunning success for Al Qaeda."