Features | Politics

An Interview with Howard Dean

The doyen of the Democratic Party discusses Afghanistan, China, North Korea, Obama and the GFC with Daniel Collings.

By Daniel Collings for

Howard Dean is one of the great outsiders of US politics. His bid for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination energised the party’s grassroots and established Dean as a champion of the centre-left. But his campaign faltered on the belief that he was too far from the mainstream to be elected president. Serving subsequently as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Dean expanded the party’s grassroots organisation in traditional Republican-leaning states, paving the way for Obama’s victory last year. Still the outsider, Dean was not offered a position in Obama’s cabinet and has now returned to his activist roots. ‘I consider myself one of the older generation, who is passing things along to the newer generation,’ he told The Diplomat in a characteristically outspoken conversation.

Do you see the election of Barack Obama as a major turning point in American politics?

I do. There’s a generational change. It’s the first multicultural generation in America, which selected the first multicultural president in America. People under 35 voted in a higher percentage than people over 65 for the first time in my lifetime. It’s a tectonic shift.There is a whole new generation in charge of America now.

Would you agree with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that the current economic crisis stems from the neo-liberal economic consensus, the belief in free, unfettered markets that has dominated policy making for the past thirty years?

No. Well, indirectly. I think the current crisis stems from very bad business and ethical judgment based on the enormous pressure for increasing returns. Now, it’s all compounded by the unfettered capitalism regime as perpetrated by ideologues, like Reagan–people who put ideology ahead of practicality.The system has clearly been deregulated excessively [and] the people who are running the system have failed. They’ve failed in their responsibility to shareholders. They failed in their responsibility to their country.

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Do you believe that President Obama has been bold enough in his measures to tackle the crisis?

Yes, I think so. I think he’s been extraordinarily bold and now, of course, we have to see how this all works. We are going to know fairly shortly because what happens to the automobile companies is going to make a big difference.

Given the extent of the current crisis, is now the right time for the US to pursue universal health care?

Of course. You can’t not do it. One of the things I like about Obama is that he gets how interrelated everything is. In the short term we have to fix this immediate financial crisis. But in the longer term, healthcare is a big part of American economic instability. This employer-based system that we have makes us uncompetitive with other industrial nations. The costs are going up two or three times faster than they are in other systems around the industrialised, democratic world. And that’s not a prescription for long-term economic health for America. So if you want to fix the economy, you can’t just fix the short term problems, you’ve got to fix the long-term problems.

How significant do you consider the change in tone that Obama has brought to foreign policy?

It’s created a whole different America. I think America is now seen as a team player again, as a country that wants to re-engage itself in the world. I think one thing that’s gone forever is America’s position as automatic leader. So we are going to have to get used to that. We are still going to be very important, but we are not going to be running the whole show anymore.Oddly enough, Bush’s removal of himself from playing a serious role in foreign affairs has created a world that has had to evolve beyond American leadership. That’s a good thing for the rest of the world.

Will this lead to a greater role for the United Nations?

I think that depends on how much reform goes on at the UN. I’ve always supported the UN as an institution, but the reform that has gone on there is incomplete. I think the April conference on racism was a perfect example. For the UN to become serious it has to stop holding ridiculous conferences like that.

You were a very vocal critic of President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Given the greater stability on the ground today, have your views shifted?

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No. What the President did was mislead the American people deliberately. That’s just a fact. And that’s not the way you go to war.

Do you believe President Obama has set out the right timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq?

Yes. When you get to be President you find out there’s information that you didn’t know about when you were on the campaign trail. He has only extended the timetable by a few months. I fully support him.

How concerned are you by the situation in Afghanistan today?

I’m very concerned. I think that Obama is doing the best he can. I fully support what he is doing. In fact it was my position in 2004 that while Iraq was a war we should not be in, we had to be in Afghanistan. Obama has correctly said that this is not a war we can win militarily. So we have got to find a way to change that society, which is basically a feudal society [and] probably the most dangerous society on the face of the earth for women.

I don’t think the United States would ever invade a country to save its women, but now that we’re there, abandoning 50 per cent of the population to slavery essentially is, I think, unconscionable. So we find ourselves in one of those morasses that the United States seems so apt at getting itself into, where leaving presents terrible moral dilemmas in addition to our national security dilemma.

I actually believe that we could handle the national security problem without troops on the ground. If we had evidence that there were new terrorist cells emerging then we could handle that simply with air power. But the real problem is how do you protect the rights of women in a society where every single UN convention on the rights of women will be violated by the government should we leave?

On the question of climate change, how far do you expect the Obama Administration to move beyond the policies of President Bush?

Very far. The only limiting factor will be Congress. There are a lot of Democrats in coal-producing states who will be constrained from doing the things that need to be done. But I think Congress doesn’t understand the depth of this problem. Even the environmental community isn’t messaging this thing right. People talk about the oceans rising over 60-100 years and so on. In 15 years many of the glaciers in the Himalayas will be gone, which means one billion people will have their water supply in severe jeopardy. So something needs to be done about this immediately.Obama, I think, totally gets how serious this is. And it’s going to be a major undertaking to move people faster. We’re in the middle of a crisis and the crisis can’t be stopped. The question is how much damage does it do?

What do you think will emerge from the COP15 climate change conference in Denmark?

I think probably not an agreement but major progress. The biggest problem is not going to be the United States. It’s going to be Brazil and China. The West can’t demand that they shoulder the same degree of responsibility as we do–and we shouldn’t, there needs to be compromise. But we can’t have a treaty that Brazil, India, China and South Africa are not included in.I would be thrilled if the basic inclusion of those countries could be negotiated. And if it is I think we’re going to get to where we need to go.

Do you think it is time for the US to engage in talks with North Korea at the highest level?

Well, we’ve been engaged in high-level talks. That was one thing that the Bush Administration did that I think was right. We have engaged in the six-party talks and I think we should continue that.

What about direct bilateral talks?

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Well, there is not much point in having direct bilateral talks. The Chinese are the ones with the real leverage with North Korea. So I think the six-party talks are actually better than direct bilateral talks because I think frankly that, without the Chinese, we are not going to get much accomplished in North Korea.

What should be the guiding principles for relations with China?

I think we [the US] should consider China to be a strategic partner. They are our economic rival in some ways, but the Chinese have a society which has the same values as the United States does–stability and prosperity. So as long as we keep that in mind and so long as the Chinese are willing to have a long-term perspective and work in a constructive way–and I think there is every indication that that is the case now–then I think we can build a very strong partnership.

And the question of human rights?

My own thinking is that we need to keep pushing on human rights for sure. Second, despite the headlines they get in the West, [the Chinese] are improving their human rights situation. It’s certainly far from perfect, but they do care what their people think. This is an authoritarian regime, but a different kind of authoritarian regime. And they understand that feedback from the grassroots matters, they just have a very different way of doing it than Western democracies do.

In the United States, the Democrats now control the White House and both Houses of Congress. How confident are you that they can maintain this dominant position?

Demographics are working for us. The Republicans are going to have to go move away from the right wing ideologue base that they have. The base is smaller in terms of its influence on American politics, but as the Republican base has shrunk, this base becomes relatively bigger. So they have a very, very difficult transition to make.

During your 2004 presidential bid you helped bring the Internet revolution to political campaigning. But today you’re not on Twitter. Even Karl Rove tweets. Why don’t you?

[Laughs] Well, I have to be convinced that it’s a substantive thing and not just a gadget. Most of my experience with Twitter, which is relatively minimal, is ‘I’m going to the conference now’. ‘The speech is really interesting’. I mean, give me a break!