WASHINGTON -- Dr. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, arrived at CBS's Washington studios Sunday with one unusual talking point for his "Face the Nation" interview clearly in mind. He claimed Iraqi women were better off under Saddam Hussein's barbarous regime than they are likely to be under the nascent democracy. In fact, he said it three times.
"That's a terrible thing to say," one old-line Democratic loyalist told me. "But what are we going to do about him? We're stuck with him." The answer by this Democrat and many others is to ignore him, which is not easy when he is on national television.
Iraq seems a major political liability for Republicans and an asset for Democrats. But Dean cannot resist employing the tactics that propelled a little-known former governor of Vermont to front-runner presidential nominee status in 2004 and then produced such a negative reaction that he lost every primary except Vermont's. To suggest that Saddam Hussein's rule is preferable to anything in Iraq is repellent.
In answer to host Bob Schieffer's first question on "Face the Nation," he replied that "it looks like women will be worse off in Iraq than they were when Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq. That's a pretty sad commentary on this administration's ability to do anything right." A few moments later, he said: "If it turns out that this constitution really does take away the rights that women have enjoyed in Iraq before, then I can't imagine why we're there."
"Well," said Schieffer, "I'll go back and ask you about that in a minute." He did not, as the interview moved to other things. But Dean went back a third time to his talking point: "The constitution looks like it may take away freedom from the Iraq people, at least half of them, instead of add it to them."
Dean was simplifying and distorting reality. In the complicated, delayed process of drafting an Iraqi constitution, Islam surely will be recognized as the state religion. How that conflicts with women's rights is one issue being hashed out.
The drafters last weekend were described by Shiite negotiator Jalel Aldin Saghir as agreeing that the constitution, while based on Islam, would guarantee women's rights. "There isn't anything in the constitution to impose religious teachings or religious laws in Iraq," Sheik Humam Hamoudi, chairman of the constituent assembly's constitutional committee, said in a news conference last week. Contrary to Dean, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is pressing Iraqis to protect women's rights in their constitution.
What is so demagogic about Dean's stance is his insinuation that women were better off under the Saddam dictatorship. He is following the lead taken by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Brookings Institution on Feb. 25 last year. She quoted Iraqi women leaders as "starting to express concerns about some of the pullbacks in the rights they were given under Saddam Hussein. He was an equal opportunity oppressor, but on paper, women had rights." She contended that "as long as they stayed out of his way, they had considerable freedom of movement."
Clinton in 2004 was not nearly so over the top as Dean in 2005, but both are contradicted by people who know the situation better than they and are not driven by partisan concerns. Nina Shea, director of the religious freedom center at Freedom House, responded to Clinton's claim: "Women's rights [under Saddam] were largely an illusion." In 1989 when the dictator was at full power, Iraqi dissident and intellectual Kanan Makiya said: "Male domination has not been done away with. It has found a substitute in the all-male Revolutionary Command Council, the higher army command and the ever-so-male person of Saddam Hussein."
Howard Dean is not the first politician to distort facts in his own interests. But many activists in the party he now leads are puzzled over what he thinks he is accomplishing politically. Is it good politics to contend that Iraq was better off under Saddam Hussein than even a flawed Islamic republic? Does it make sense politically to tell Americans that more than 1,800 troops have died to make life worse for half of Iraq's population?