By Lee Walczak
Ever since the fall of Baghdad, "Where's Saddam?" has been a Democratic rallying cry. As the party's Presidential contenders homed in on the Bush Administration's troubled post-war cleanup, the military's failure to find the deposed Iraqi dictator became a symbol of George W. Bush's failed foreign-policy vision.
Now that a U.S. commando force has found Saddam cowering in a hole near Tikrit, the Iraqi despot has been quickly shorn of his bushy beard. Just as quickly, the Democrats have been scalped, too -- stripped of what looked like a sure-fire election issue.
Democratic front-runner Howard Dean was feeling confident enough on the national-security front to schedule a major foreign policy speech in Los Angeles on Dec. 15. The former Vermont governor plans to elaborate on his vision of a benign new foreign policy, one built on an intricate weaving of international alliances. It's a stark contrast to Bush's macho unilateralism and, realistic or not, it represents mainstream thinking in a Democratic Party that's seeking the comfort of old verities and still-older alliances in the face of an unconventional new menace.
Well, you can bet that Dean's speechwriters, a crew accustomed to penning fiery oratorical flourishes, worked overtime this weekend on their hero's tonality. Indeed, in the hours after news bulletins flashed word of Saddam's capture, Dean issued a -- for him -- surprisingly sotto voce press release that praised the American military while demanding immediate internationalization of the Iraq mission. Retired NATO General Wesley K. Clark, for one, got it right. Informed of the dramatic turn of events in Iraq, Clark unequivocally hailed the capture as a triumph.
While war on terrorism is far from turning the corner -- for one thing, a character named Osama bin Laden is still lurking somewhere -- the breakthrough in Iraq will hit an already issue-starved Democratic field like a blow to the solar plexus.
In the short run, the news will overshadow coverage of the Democratic campaign and give the President a boost in the polls. Dems' ridicule of Bush's terrorist hunt will have to be dramatically toned down, with most party wannabes seizing on the inability to snare bin Laden as proof that the Administration is still chasing the wrong targets in all the wrong places.
TOO EARLY TO CROW.
For now, about the best that Dean & Co. can muster is to repeat two longstanding demands: that the White House turn Iraq over to the Iraqi people on an accelerated timetable and that NATO and the U.N. be brought in to assume a major role in the mission. Topic A could actually happen now that the Iraqis realize Saddam is well and truly gone (see BW Online, 12/15/03, "A Moment of Opportunity in Iraq"). But Topic B flies in the face of a pesky reality. Most of the allies want nothing to do with the seething mess in Iraq, and they're not willing to take the domestic heat over casualties in the region.
Of course, one important caveat must be expressed as celebrations over Saddam's capture break out: It's still far too early to put up placards that proclaim "Mission Accomplished." For starters, it must quickly become evident that Saddam's capture takes the heart out of the Baathist guerrilla war and convinces the dictator's loyalists to call it a day.
If the opposite happens -- enraged jihadists from all over the Islamic world start pouring into Iraq to avenge this latest Arab humiliation -- then the Democrats still have a sliver of an issue. They'll argue that by launching a trumped-up war against Saddam under the guise of searching for mythical weapons of mass destruction, the Administration has lost the U.S. its traditional allies, enflamed Islamic public opinion, and actually made the threat of a terror strike in the U.S. greater.
Thus, the wild card is the same one that has been lurking in the deck since the U.S. stormed into Iraq last March. Is a weakened al Qaeda still capable of launching a devastating second strike on the U.S. homeland, and if so, does any Democrat have the ability to credibly claim that the Iraq war brought such a tragic day closer?
In the meantime, the Democratic contenders are ever more in the passive position of awaiting a thunderbolt of bad news. The economy is receding as an election issue except in a handful of industrial states. Now, it appears that a foreign-policy assault on the Administration could be an equally tough sell. For Democrats, that means it's almost time to dust off those creaky old TV commercials that accuse Republicans of gutting Medicare and Social Security -- oops, make that just Social Security, since the GOP just pushed through a $400 billion Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors.
Of all the Democratic hopefuls, Dean has the most to ponder in this perilous post-Saddam period. As the candidate most closely aligned with the antiwar movement, he has the most to lose if Bush is suddenly transformed from an inept national-security steward into the cowboy who (almost) always gets his man. Tremors of apprehension ran through the party Establishment about Dean's temperament before Dec. 13, and they'll only be amplified now.
While Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Missouri Representative Richard A. Gephardt have never flinched from their support for a congressional resolution backing the war in Iraq, other candidates are on shakier ground. Many have intensified their broadsides at the intervention and now appear flat-footed. Clark, in particular, has been scathing in his denunciations of Bush and will have to massively modulate his pitch to the party faithful or risk looking out of sync.
No one on the ground in Iraq thinks Saddam's capture will put an instant end to the spate of suicide attacks or global terrorists' desire to humiliate the Americans in the Middle East. Less than a day after the tyrant was taken, 17 died in a terrorist blast at an Iraqi police station.
Yet on the Democratic campaign trail, some of the most barbed attacks directed at Commander-in-Chief Bush will now be shelved for awhile, as the party's Presidential aspirants find their apocalyptic visions punctured by that rarest and most fleeting of events in the Middle East -- success.
Walczak is BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht