Lugar needs to stand up

Our senior senator in Washington, Richard Lugar, has been in the news a lot lately. This is because Sen. Lugar is the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, a group responsible for keeping an eye on how U.S. foreign policy is going. Lugar, who seems to be an unbeatable politician here in Indiana, is also highly respected by colleagues from both parties in Washington. When it comes to issues dealing with defense and our relationships with other countries, Lugar is considered a leading authority.

Seeing Lugar popping up on talk shows and the nightly news is like looking at a thermometer. In this case, it’s the Iraq war whose temperature is being taken. Every time you see Lugar it’s a sign that the fever there is getting higher. Lugar has to be unhappy about the way things in Iraq are unraveling.

Although he was an early supporter for taking action against Saddam Hussein’s regime, Lugar has a consistent record of making cautionary and sometimes critical statements about the Bush Administration’s handling of the whole affair. In August of 2002, eight months before we attacked Iraq, Lugar expressed concern that the administration had yet to build an international coalition and public support around a war plan. He was worried that the cost estimates he was seeing were inadequate. Finally, although he said repeatedly that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, he was also uncomfortable with Bush making “regime change” a rationale for preemptive war.

But, at that point, Richard Lugar was what he has always been — nothing if not a good Republican soldier. Never mind about his famous knowledge and insight into the ways of the world. And never mind that, by his own admission, he was being frozen out of the loop by Bush’s inner circle, rarely being consulted or asked for advice. During the first two years of Bush’s term, Lugar, according to Congressional Quarterly, was the only senator — of either party — to vote with Bush 100 percent of the time. And so, although he dutifully asked questions and raised concerns, Lugar went along on Bush’s ride to Baghdad.

How unhappy Lugar must be today with the way that ride is turning out can be surmised by what he had to say to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (Wolfowitz’s boss, Donald Rumsfeld, rarely, if ever, deigns to appear before Lugar’s committee) at a hearing in May 2003, approximately three months after we invaded Iraq. “I am concerned that the administration’s initial stabilization and reconstruction efforts have been inadequate,” Lugar said. He went on to state that there was “little understanding” of Bush’s plans to restore food, water, electricity and fuel; that there were “insufficient” police and military forces to establish security.

“There also is uncertainty about the long-term plans for the transition from military to civilian authority,” he said, “and increasing fear that vacuums of authority will lead to sustained internal conflict … We should not underestimate the ethnic and religious rivalries of a long-repressed people.”

A year later, restoring essential commodities like food, water, electricity and fuel is still unfinished business, and as far as restoring law and order are concerned — forget it. As to those “long-term plans for the transition from military to civilian authority”? Here we are, counting down the weeks to a deadline. All President Bush has said on this subject is that we’ll know what happens when it happens, or, as another congressman, stealing a bit of Lugar’s Hoosier thunder, said a few days ago, the transition will be akin to a “jump-ball.”

Last week, it was déjà vu all over again, as Lugar conducted yet another round of hearings. “Are U.S. plans for rebuilding Iraq shifting to new realities on the ground?” he asked his worse-for-wear foil, Wolfowitz. “Have sufficient resources been identified to carry through with our plans?” Richard Lugar has long practiced the mandarin style of conveying bad news with a frozen smile. This is an old diplomatic technique, not unlike his other trademark of expressing carefully padded words of concern in advance of actions, like an ill-conceived and ineptly executed take-over of another country, experience tells him is bound to mean trouble.

“I want to be a unifying force,” Lugar recently told the New York Times, adding that he could force the administration to truly answer his questions by delaying confirmations or holding up financing, but that he did not intend to do that. “I have no desire to lead a revolt,” he said.

The problem is that in this crisis Richard Lugar appears to have no desire to lead at all. As the lists of dead and wounded mount in Iraq and his country’s standing in the world is degraded, Indiana’s senior senator appears resigned to tell his party and his president, “I told you so.” That, to put it in diplomat’s parlance, may be sufficient in certain foreign policy circles. It’s cold comfort for the rest of us.


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