In a political sense, Howard Dean chose his words poorly when he said that "The idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong." But this is a gaffe in the Kinsley sense -- when a politician tells the truth. It's virtually indisputable that "winning" the war in Iraq is highly unlikely. The only remaining question is whether the US can pull out without sparking full-blown civil war or giving rise to a dangerous Islamic theocracy.
In any case, Dean has every right to speak his mind, and saying he believes that the war is unwinnable does not mean he wants us to lose. Consider the absurdity of this logic: It's also true that I don't think we can kill Osama Bin Laden with a death ray from outer space, but that doesn't mean I oppose taking him out.
Unfortunately, several Republicans and media commentators have continued their long pattern of post-9/11 attacks on dissent. The Los Angeles Times reports that House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Dean "made it clear the Democratic Party sides with those who wish to surrender" and GOP chairman Ken Mehlman said Dean's statement "sends the wrong message to our troops, the wrong message to the enemy, the wrong message to the Iraqi people."
A New York Post editorial was even uglier (lowlights in bold):
Not all the surrender monkeys live in France.
Take Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean — the sedition-mongering former governor of Vermont who once presumed to the presidency and who now is working overtime for a terrorist victory in Iraq.
..."[The] idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong," he said Monday. "Bring the 80,000 National Guard and Reserve troops home immediately. They don't belong in a conflict like this anyway."
Dean doesn't know what he's talking about, on several levels.
The National Guard and Reserves have been an integral part of the Army's "total force" for a generation — there's no bringing them home without collapsing the entire effort in Iraq.
Such an outcome, of course, would be much to Dr. Dean's liking — because, again, it "is just plain wrong" to think "we're going to win the war in Iraq."
...For what Dean did was send an unambiguous message of encouragement to America's mortal enemies both in Iraq and elsewhere around the world.
Hang tough, Dean was telling al Qaeda: You may not be able to defeat the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, but we're doing your work for you right here at home.
A reminder to the demagogues: George W. Bush said "I don’t think you can win [the war on terror]" in 2004. Did he "send the wrong signal" to our troops or "the enemy"? Does that mean he wants us to lose the war on terror? Of course not. It was a candid empirical judgment about the likelihood of "winning" a non-traditional military conflict. But for conservatives eager to blunt growing opposition to the war, it's easier to bludgeon Dean than to consider this obvious double standard.
Update 12/8: This post was picked up by Slate's Today's Blogs feature.
Update 12/8: You read it here first. John B. Judis, writing on TNR Online today, delivers virtually the same line I used above: "Dean's statements perfectly fit Michael Kinsley's definition of a 'gaffe'--an assertion that is impolitic but true."