LOS ANGELES -- Democratic front-runner Howard Dean, after months of campaigning on his opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, yesterday unveiled the broad outline of his overall approach to foreign policy. He argued that fighting terrorism and finding weapons of mass destruction should be the first priority of an international coalition and that military intervention should only be a last resort.
Underscoring the challenge he will face as the presidential campaign unfolds, the former Vermont governor opened his first major foreign policy speech by celebrating the weekend capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein while simultaneously lambasting President Bush for the war that preceded it.
"The difficulties and the tragedies which we have faced in Iraq show the administration launched the war in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with inadequate planning, insufficient help, and at the extraordinary cost so far of $166 billion," Dean said in an address to the Pacific Council on International Policy. "An administration prepared to work with others in true partnership might have been able, if it found no alternative to Saddam's ouster, then to rebuild Iraq with far less cost and far less risk."
He pronounced a "Dean doctrine" that would make unilateral military intervention a last resort. He also pledged to improve living conditions and training for US troops, a $30 billion national expenditure to buy nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union, $39 billion in spending to fight AIDS through 2009, and a commitment to working with the United Nations and US allies.
"Now, when America should be at the height of its influence, we find ourselves, too often, isolated and resented," Dean said. "Unlike the kind of pickup team this administration prefers, alliances train together so they can function effectively."
Highlighting both Dean's front-runner status and criticism that he lacks experience in foreign affairs, his remarks prompted an immediate attack from his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a staunch supporter of the Iraq invasion, seized on a line in the speech in which Dean declared that "the capture of Saddam has not made America safer."
The senator said in a statement: "Howard Dean has climbed into his own spider hole of denial if he believes that the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer."
Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts accused Dean of trying to move into the political mainstream from the far-left antiwar fringe.
"Howard Dean has been playing politics with foreign policy for over a year, and his repositioning is just the latest Howard Dean political game," Gephardt said in a statement. "Despite issuing contradictory statements on Iraq over the last year, Governor Dean has used this issue to constantly attack his Democratic opponents and to seek political advantage."
Kerry said Dean "claims that his position on the war has not changed because of the arrest, yet it becomes increasingly unclear each day what that position was and whether it was rooted in conviction or political expediency."
Bush also weighed in, shaking his head after he was asked at a news conference about Dean's recent discussion of rumors that the president had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
"Absurd insinuation," the president said.
And in a speech yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, called for the United States to form an Iraqi reconstruction authority with UN and NATO components to oversee the transition of power to the Iraqis. "This moment cannot be just about congratulating ourselves," Clinton said. "It should be a moment where we step back and consider how to go forward. What is it we can do today to strengthen our hand?"
In Los Angeles, the audience for Dean's appearance in Century City had a breadth found only in Southern California, from former secretary of state Warren M. Christopher to actress Drew Barrymore.
Both in his speech and answering audience questions, Dean expounded on African, Latin American, and North Korean policy and offered an intricate explanation of his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On that point, he said he would ask Bill Clinton to serve as a special emissary for peace talks.
Dean sought to undercut Republican criticism that Democrats are weak on defense, pledging to support troops with better pay, benefits, and equipment. Yet he also played to the Democratic base, railing against recent reductions in civil liberties. "We will not undermine freedom in the name of freedom," he declared.
Retired Army General Wesley K. Clark gave a foreign policy speech yesterday as well, speaking at the Netherlands Institute for International Relations at the Hague, where he is testifying at the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic.
Clark reiterated his campaign's themes: the need for a "new Atlantic Charter" to guide NATO and other allies as they face rogue states and nuclear threats; the idea of using the Cold War approach the United States and Europe used against the former Soviet Union as a blueprint for the Middle East; and the need for the United States to cooperate with other countries by rejoining efforts to create an International Criminal Court and joining the Kyoto agreement or its equivalent.
Joanna Weiss of the Globe staff contributed to this story from Boston. Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.