Dean's dearth of experience

November 19, 2003|By Justin Cawley

WASHINGTON - Governors running for president invariably are attacked for their lack of foreign policy experience. This arises from the nature of a governor's job, because unlike the government of the United States or the City Council of Berkeley, Calif., state governments are not active in foreign policy.

But the "weak on foreign policy" criticism carries new seriousness in the first presidential election since 9/11. The rap that governors are weak in foreign affairs is proving to be spot-on in the case of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Dr. Dean has badly bungled his comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At a campaign event, he said, "It is not our place to take sides," and he later told a reporter that "the United States needs an evenhanded approach to the conflict."

Many of Dr. Dean's fellow Democrats rebuked him, recognizing that his comments signaled a dramatic break from the U.S. government's half-century of bipartisan support for Israel. Dr. Dean refused to withdraw the remark, however, saying only that he has "since learned [evenhanded] is a sensitive word to use in certain communities" and "perhaps I could have used a different euphemism."

Dr. Dean also recently said he wished that "the president had spent more time on the Middle East and less time on Iraq," which Dr. Dean presumably understands to be in the Far East.

But while Dr. Dean's weak grasp of foreign policy will continue to dog him, he may be just as vulnerable to the allegation that he lacks domestic policy experience. His public career consists entirely of his service in Vermont's capital, Montpelier (pop. 8,035).

Vermont is not just tiny - it is idiosyncratic. Homogeneous, quaint, tranquil and a little bit socialist, Vermont is akin to a minor European country. It is a boutique state.

During his years in Montpelier, Dr. Dean never had to deal with the most important domestic issues that would face a President Dean. He never had to confront urban poverty, urban blight or urban crime, because Vermont has no urban areas (Burlington, by far Vermont's largest city, has a population of 39,000).

Issues of race are practically nonexistent in Vermont because everyone looks the same. Vermont's economy is quirky, relying heavily on dairy foods for niche markets and on tourism. The state's politics are perhaps the most liberal in the nation.

Vermont is a beautiful and charming place. But voters will have to ask themselves whether Dr. Dean's governorship of a peculiar little state gives him the experience necessary to take on America's most pressing domestic issues, not to mention guide America's foreign policy in the post-9/11 era.

Justin Cawley practices international law in Washington.

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