"Our senator finally tells it

J. William Fulbright, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee longer than anyone before or since, was an owlish presence. He had a way of looking down on those who addressed him with a mixture of judgment and indigestion.

Fulbright was a Democrat from Arkansas. In 1964, he followed his president, Lyndon Johnson, and voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, allowing for a dramatic escalation in the Vietnam War. Fulbright came to regret that vote and, in 1966, began holding hearings, broadcast nationally on TV, which amounted to a rebuke of American policy in Southeast Asia.

Fulbright’s willingness to break ranks with a president from his own party was a turning point. It gave permission to other Democrats who had doubts about the war to bring their criticisms into the open, and it spelled the end of Johnson’s authority as a war maker.

Indiana’s senior senator, Richard Lugar, delivered a Fulbright moment last week. On the evening of June 25, Lugar stood up on the Senate floor and gave a speech calling for President Bush to change course in Iraq.

This is a big deal.

In the first place, Lugar, like Fulbright before him, is widely considered to be a wise man when it comes to foreign affairs — a person capable of taking a long and nuanced view of his country’s relationship to the rest of the world. Just as important, Lugar is a diehard Republican loyalist, a politician who has steadfastly backed his president in vote after vote.

Lugar’s loyalty has been tested throughout Bush’s catastrophic misadventure in Iraq. When war clouds were gathering, Lugar expressed concerns about the quality of preparations and lack of planning for what might ensue once Saddam was overthrown. Since then, he has been critical about the way things have gone on a number of occasions. But in spite of everything, including his own better judgment, Lugar has stuck with his president. Indeed, at times, he has seemed an enabler.

Until now.

“We don’t owe the president our unquestioning agreement,” said Lugar last week. He went on to say that three factors made the president’s surge strategy unworthy: “the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military and the constraints of our own political process … are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multisectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame.”

Lugar urged the president to try and see the forest for the trees. To a great extent, his speech was about how he sees Iraq turning into a kind of black hole sucking down American resources, energy and focus. The surge strategy, Lugar said, is “too dependent on the actions of others who do not share our agenda, it relies on military power to achieve goals it cannot achieve. It distances allies that we will need for any regional diplomatic effort.” The surge strategy, according to Lugar, is endangering our nation’s vital interests, not strengthening them.

Lugar is for a redeployment of American forces in Iraq, not a withdrawal. In fact, withdrawal is what he fears will happen if Bush stays the course. Pressure for withdrawal, he warns the president, is building; the 2006 election was a bellwether. If Republicans want to have a say in what happens in Iraq and, by extension, the Middle East, this may be their last best chance. “In short,” Lugar said, “our political timeline will not support a rational course adjustment in Iraq unless such an adjustment is initiated very soon.

“We have overestimated what the military can achieve, we have set goals that are unrealistic and we have inadequately factored in the broader regional consequences of our actions,” said Lugar, who then called for a diplomatic offensive, coupled with a “tactical drawdown” of troops, aimed at repairing alliances and demonstrating our staying power in the Middle East.

Lugar then called for the U.S. to focus on what he called “the elephants in the room”: helping to negotiate peace between Arabs and Israelis and taking practical steps to reduce dependence on Persian Gulf oil, including the development of bio-fuels and the federal mandating of “a radical increase in the miles per gallon of America’s auto fleet.”

In making this speech, Lugar is calling for a massive reality check, an end to the pretense that arbitrary benchmarks and a September “progress report” mean anything. Whether Bush Inc. is capable of dealing with reality is another matter. The words of J. William Fulbright, circa 1966, come to mind: “Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations … Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God’s work.” n



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