Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean yesterday condemned President Bush's touting of a policy of preemptive self-defense, saying it was a formula for alienating other nations and an aberration from American tradition.
"America has always had an unspoken doctrine of preemption. The question is whether we have had a spoken doctrine of preemption, and the answer to that is absolutely not," Dean said in an interview with Globe editors. "To lay out a doctrine of the right of the United States to preempt any time there is a threat is pretty much an international outrage."
Dean, the former governor of Vermont who boosted his profile with outspoken criticism of the war in Iraq, said such a policy "certainly would not put us in good stead in our relationship with the rest of the world."
Republican officials have said that during the 2004 presidential campaign they intend to highlight the Bush administration's preemption policy, saying the world is too dangerous a place to wait for another catastrophic terrorist act before attacking a dangerous foe. The Republican strategy is designed to portray Democrats as weak on national security.
Dean said opposition to an overt policy of preemption would not preclude acting when necessary.
"If we had known Osama bin Laden with real certainty was going to attack the United States, of course we would have done something about it," he said.
In the case of Iraq, Dean said, the facts did not justify the intervention, particularly because Saddam Hussein had been successfully contained for 12 years.
"I believed at the time that he did have weapons of mass destruction, but I didn't believe he was a danger to the United States," Dean said.
Dean said there were appropriate actions that could have been taken. Hussein could have been removed in concert with the United Nations or a "real" multinational alliance. Alternatively, he said, "We could have hemmed [him]in for as long as we chose."
Dean, 55, is the front-runner among the nine Democrats vying for the nation's highest office. He has raised more money than any of them and leads in more polls, including those in crucial early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. This week, Dean enjoyed a major coup with the endorsement of former vice president Al Gore, a move expected to lend a patina of establishment support to a candidacy that has largely been characterized as maverick and insurgent.
While Dean has made a name for himself opposing the war in Iraq -- the only leading contender among Democrats bidding for the White House to do so -- he has of late taken to focusing his stump speeches on domestic policy, even lightly rapping his rivals at Tuesday night's nine-way debate for dwelling on Iraq policy.
Yesterday, Dean said his campaign would win by talking about community, a loosely defined theme he began invoking at small house gatherings and other intimate settings early in his campaign and which he has begun to roll out more frequently at rallies and larger campaign events.
The idea, he said, is to highlight the common needs of different groups -- such as Southern whites and blacks -- in areas like education, jobs, and health care, and to take the spotlight off traditionally divisive issues like gun control and abortion.
A hallmark of domestic policy in a Dean White House, he said, would be balancing the federal budget. The task, however, would require more than one term in office, he said, estimating it would take five to seven years.