Howard Dean has sounded awfully hawkish lately.
With the U.S. military engaged in three separate Middle Eastern conflicts, Dean—the former governor of Vermont who rallied grassroots Democrats in 2004 by fervently condemning the Iraq war—has been notably absent from the left-wing criticism of President Obama’s defense policy. Once an anti-war icon, Dean has spent the past two years applauding the administration’s troop surge in Afghanistan, defending the slow withdrawal from Iraq, and endorsing the military intervention in Libya.
But now, it appears, Dean is returning to his pacifistic roots—and he has a message for President Obama: Get our troops out of Afghanistan.
In a weekend interview with The Daily Beast, Dean said he’s had a change of heart when it comes to the war he has often defended. “I actually supported the president when he sent extra troops to Afghanistan,” Dean said. “But I’ve come to believe that’s not a winnable war.”
Dean attributes his newly-held opposition to a crisis of faith in Afghan President Hamid Karzai—and in the war’s humanitarian value.
“The Vietnam War showed us we shouldn’t prop up corrupt governments, and that’s what we’ve got in Afghanistan.”
“I supported (ramping up troop presence) because I was concerned with what would happen to the women in the country” if the Taliban took control, Dean said. “But I recently read about Karzai saying some very sexist, terrible things, and it’s become obvious that there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two sides.”
He continued: “As much as I feel terrible about what’s happening to the women there, Karzai has shown he can’t be trusted any more than the Taliban to help them.”
Dean didn’t specify what Karzai had done to draw such sharp criticism, but the prime minister has taken heat recently from women’s rights advocates, who say he’s bending to Taliban pressure at the expense of the country’s women.
In just one example of the Taliban’s influence, Karzai’s government has recently begun cracking down on weddings—forming committees to enforce gender segregation at receptions, and working to outlaw “revealing” bridal gowns. Of course, such measures are relatively tame when compared with the brutality of past Taliban governments, but some say the efforts are symbolic of Karzai’s apathetic attitude toward women’s liberation. As feminist commentator Ruby Hamad recently wrote, “Karzai has proved himself to be ambivalent toward women’s rights."
And without substantial gains in that area, Dean said, he sees no value in continuing to fight in the region: “The Vietnam War showed us we shouldn’t prop up corrupt governments, and that’s what we’ve got in Afghanistan.”
He is careful not to frame his argument as an attack on the White House, insisting he supports the president even though "we're going to disagree sometimes on policy."
But Dean’s combative rhetoric marks a return to the passionate liberalism that many on the left have missed in recent months, as the hope-and-change candidate of 2008 has gotten bogged down in the pragmatic business of running the country. With Obama pursuing neocon-esque military actions, and cutting deals with Congressional Republicans on fiscal issues, a newly emboldened Dean could effectively lead a much-needed pep rally in the Democratic Party.
Take, for instance, the choice words he had for Rep. Paul Ryan's deficit reduction plan.
“Look, we have a fiscal problem in this country that needs to be solved,” he said. “But getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid is not the answer. That’s what these far-right radical Tea Party Republicans want, and I’m glad the president is standing up to them.”
He also thinks 2012 should be a good year for Democrats—if only because the GOP keeps shooting itself in the foot.
“Between Scott Walker and Paul Ryan, they’ve done an awful lot to harm the prospects of the Republican Party,” Dean said. “There are a lot of people out there who didn’t bargain for that. They don’t want a bunch of crackpots running the country.”
The soundbites may sound angry, but more than anything, Dean seems excited. And if there's one thing the Democratic Party needs right now, it's a little excitement.
That's one thing he and the president can probably agree on.
McKay Coppins is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering politics and national affairs. His writing has also appeared in The Daily Caller and Salt Lake City's Deseret News.