WASHINGTON -- The Democratic foreign policy establishment is rallying to the challenge of educating the party's leading outsider, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, with Dean seeking to burnish his credentials and former Clinton administration officials hoping to soften some of Dean's sharp pronouncements.
When Dean decided he wanted an extensive tutorial on foreign policy in August, his advisers arranged a six-hour seminar at a hotel outside Washington, featuring a private class on Iraq and other areas of the Middle East from Madeleine K. Albright, former secretary of state.
A few weeks later, when Dean caused an uproar by suggesting Israel and the Palestinians should be treated in an "evenhanded" way, he received advice from former President Clinton.
And in the days since, Dean has announced a foreign policy team filled with big names, from Anthony Lake, who was national security adviser under Clinton, to retired general Joseph Hoar, a top commander in the 1991 Gulf War.
Not everyone who has tutored Dean has endorsed him or even agrees with him; Albright, Clinton, and other pillars of the Democratic establishment, such as former national security adviser Samuel R. Berger, say they are talking to all candidates who ask.
But the tutorials apparently serve a dual purpose: Dean, who as governor of Vermont had little official contact with other nations except Canada, is getting a grounding in foreign policy and an opportunity to cement his credentials among mainstream Democratic thinkers. And the Democratic establishment is getting an opportunity to influence a key aspect of the man who could be their party's nominee, but whose unequivocal declarations have sometimes alarmed the party's standard-bearers.
"The foreign policy community desperately wants to get to know the governor because, let's face it, you go back six months and he was dismissed out of hand. Now he's the Democratic front-runner, and all the foreign policy aficionados" are eager to make their mark, said James M. Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
According to a senior policy adviser for Dean, that has meant the candidate has had to "learn to peel back the onion," evolving from a black-and-white view to a more nuanced take on problems in the rest of the world.
Although his stark opposition to the Iraq war helped Dean surge in opinion polls of Democratic voters, his advisers say Dean is eager to project an internationalist approach to fighting terrorism that will provide a substantive contrast to the unilateral thrusts that President Bush has been accused of making.
Another example of Dean's evolution, his advisers said, is his approach to Pakistan, which is a work in progress.
"He started out with a basic understanding Pakistan was a problem, and that Osama bin Laden was probably hiding out in the border region," one of Dean's most senior advisers on foreign policy said.
Dean's immediate take more than a year ago, the adviser said, was, "why weren't we just going in and getting him, or forcing [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf's government to be more helpful?"
Dean's first briefing on Pakistan covered the delicate political balance in the country and its role in the war on terrorism, a lesson his advisers described as a "typical example" of the complexities Dean has had to understand.
"You can't just say we're going to go yell at the Pakistanis," the adviser said. "The situation is so complicated and multifaceted."
In practice, Dean still takes a relatively hard-line approach to Pakistan, especially in light of recent allegations that the country has helped Iran develop a nuclear weapons program.
A more obvious example of Dean's evolution is on the Middle East, which he visited for the first time a year ago.
Before the trip, Dean seemed to relate only to the Israeli struggle with terrorism; afterward, he saw a more complicated picture, advisers said.
Even after his session with Albright in August, Dean went on to receive heavy criticism when he said the United States should take an "evenhanded" approach with both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and later referred to members of the militant group Hamas as "soldiers."
Although he has not officially retracted the remarks, Dean adjusted his language significantly after the controversy. He announced he would make Clinton a special envoy to the Middle East. Dean also described his position as identical to the Clinton policy toward the Middle East, insisting that it was just his own rhetoric that was unpolished.
"It was at that point that Dean started talking about Clinton as his emissary to the Middle East," one of Dean's two closest advisers on foreign policy said. "He was worried he would lose an important constituency of the Democratic Party, and rightly so."
Indeed, at times, Dean's off-the-cuff comments on foreign policy have shown little evidence of his intensive study and have caused a distraction for the campaign.
Dean recently issued a statement clarifying his position on bin Laden, after a newspaper account suggested he thought the Al Qaeda leader could be innocent. All he meant, Dean said, was that everyone, including terrorists, deserves a fair trial.
Another concern for some mainstream Democratic thinkers: Dean has not moved significantly beyond his opposition to the Iraq war to address other key subjects in international policy, which his closest advisers say will be essential in portraying the full scope of his internationalist worldview.
"Frankly, there is a major disagreement between policy and politics" when it comes to Dean's foreign policy, one of his close advisers said. "Politics leads you to frame foreign policy in terms of Iraq, because it mobilizes the base. Whereas in policy, you would" emphasize a broader range of issues.
Dean's foreign policy education began two years ago at the suggestion of Danny Sebright, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who offered to introduce the governor to important players in the diplomatic world.
Dean accepted, and soon, over homemade lasagna in Sebright's town house in Washington, was attending informal briefings by former undersecretaries of state, ambassadors, and other policy makers. Over time, the sessions evolved into formal meetings with assigned lecturers delivering 10-minute presentations on various foreign policy issues, followed by question-and-answer sessions with Dean.
Advisers say Dean's worldview is very much his own -- the approach of a doctor who wants to see evidence of a problem and fix it, rather than an idealist with lofty academic visions.
But with the exception of his stand on Iraq, the Dean foreign policy does not look much different than the rest of the party's and easily could be interpreted as an amalgam of the advice Dean has received from the Democratic establishment.
He would use military force if necessary to defend American interests, believes the United States should engage North Korea in one-on-one negotiations, wants to see the administration cooperate more with other countries, and says Bush should have focused on capturing bin Laden before Saddam Hussein. Almost none of the other Democratic candidates would disagree except in nuances.
"I do not believe that Howard Dean's opposition to the war in Iraq by any means suggests that he is weak on national security," said Berger, who has advised Dean and other candidates. Berger said he came away from the meetings convinced that Dean "would be willing to use military force if called for," a tenet of the centrist Democratic philosophy on national security.
Steve Walt, academic dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said: "If you look at the group that seems to be around him, they are solidly from the center wing of the Democratic Party. These are not woolly-headed idealists."