War Stories

Lugar’s Stemwinder

Is the mild-mannered senator a grenade-thrower or a Bush stalking horse?

Richard G. Lugar. Click image to expand.
Sen. Richard Lugar

Richard Lugar’s speech on the Senate floor Monday night was a remarkable critique of President Bush’s policy in Iraq—both for what it said (the war is a disaster) and for who said it (the mild-mannered top Republican on the Senate foreign-relations committee).

But the stemwinder—it took him 50 minutes to read it aloud to a near-empty Senate chamber after hours—was also a puzzler. What did it mean? Who was it aimed at? What effect did he wish to pull off? All this is less clear.

The nub of the speech was that Bush’s surge is certain to fail. It depends too much “on the actions of others who do not share our agenda”; it tries to achieve goals that military power “cannot achieve”; and it alienates “allies that we will need” to keep the whole Middle East from blowing up.

America’s vital interests in the region, he said, are fourfold: preventing Iraq from becoming a terrorist safe haven; preventing sectarian violence from spreading beyond Iraq’s borders; preventing Iran from dominating its neighbors; and limiting the loss of U.S. credibility.

Whatever slight improvements the surge may be yielding, Lugar said, they will have no effect on these larger interests.

Bush has been urging Congress to hold off judgment on the surge until the U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, issues his status report this September. But Lugar was, in effect, saying: Forget about the report; it’s a sideshow. The policy must change before September—before the U.S. military grows more exhausted, Iraq further crumbles, and the American election season makes serious debate impossible.

But then, a few minutes into the speech, while talking about “viable options” that could still serve our interests, he uttered this intriguing passage:

But seizing these opportunities will require the President to downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq and place much more emphasis on diplomatic and economic options. It will also require members of Congress to be receptive to overtures by the President to construct a new policy outside the binary choice of surge versus withdrawal. (Italics added.)

“Overtures by the President”? What overtures by the president? And to “construct” what “new policy” that goes beyond the “choice of surge or withdrawal”?

In the days after the speech, speculation was rife on Capitol Hill, that, far from hurling a rhetorical grenade at Bush’s door, Lugar may have been acting as his stalking horse. In this scenario, Bush is ready to offer a compromise on Iraq policy—cutting way back on counterinsurgency (the surge’s mission) and returning to counterterrorism, assistance, and training the Iraqi military (missions that require far fewer troops)—but he wants assurances in advance that Congress won’t respond with demands for still further cuts.

However, others on the Hill, including some who work closely with Lugar (Republicans and Democrats), dismiss this theory. For one thing, they say, Lugar truly is upset at the Bush administration’s manglings and mendacities.

Lugar has always been at least a skeptic of the war. Back in late 2002, when Bush was lobbying Congress to pass a war resolution, Lugar and Sen. Joseph Biden, the foreign-relations committee’s top Democrat, joined forces to draft an alternative resolution, which would have placed conditions on deploying troops to Iraq and required the administration to submit more evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. As George Packer reported in The New Yorker, Lugar had recruited 25 Republican senators to sign the bill; Biden was close to rallying the necessary number of Democrats to override a prospective veto—but then the White House undercut them both by offering a separate deal to Democratic Rep. Richard Gephardt, who in exchange agreed to give Bush unrestricted authority.

The White House politicos knew Lugar wouldn’t snap back. An old-school Republican who takes bipartisanship seriously (for more on this, click here), he privately disdains the Bush team’s harsh tactics. But he is also mild-mannered, averse to confrontation, and timid in the face of hierarchy. He could be counted on to roll over—and he did.

In this scenario, Lugar gave his speech Monday night because, finally, he’d had enough. Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who talks frequently with Lugar, said in a phone interview Thursday that the speech reflected “an exhaustion of patience … a genuine frustration with where we are and where we’re headed.”

And yet, Lugar was not acting entirely on his own. According to others who are close to him, Lugar has met with Bush officials several times this year, raising his problems with the surge, encouraging them to change course. There are factions within the administration—including very senior officials in the State Department and the Pentagon—who agree with him, and they encouraged him to keep talking.

Lugar was particularly struck by reports that the Iraqi government, such as it is, may never reach agreement on key disputes and that, therefore, sectarian violence is likely to persist for many years, regardless of what we do. He was also alarmed by briefings from U.S. military officials that—as he put it in his speech—”the Army has exhausted its bench.” Recruitment is down; standards in aptitude and fitness are being relaxed to ward off disastrous shortfalls. Polls show that, as a result of the war in Iraq, just one-tenth of eligible American youth—an all-time low in the survey’s history—have any desire to serve in the armed forces.

The main reason Lugar gave his speech, according to this scenario, was to strengthen the hand of those administration officials who agree that the surge must be abandoned—to give them another political talking point (“Even Sen. Lugar says …”) for the interagency quarrels.

But the question remains: What kind of new policy is Lugar endorsing? Clearly, not a clean pullout. Near the start of the speech, he said that “the costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits.” But toward the end, he noted, “A total withdrawal from Iraq also fails to meet our security interests.”

A phrase he employs several times is “a sustainable policy”—meaning a policy that allows for a sustainable U.S. military presence in Iraq, albeit with fewer troops engaged in lower-profile activities.

In short, what he calls for, in his typical manner, is a middle course—a more modest mission of going after jihadist terrorists, training Iraqi security forces, and protecting U.S. personnel, while at the same time calling an international conference to try to settle the political and sectarian disputes or at least prevent them from spreading like wildfire.

This is what nearly every political player and senior military officer is calling for, privately or publicly. It’s what the congressional Democrats called for this spring, as a condition to keep funding the war at all. Bush vetoed that bill—and the Democrats couldn’t muster the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto.

Lugar may ultimately be worried that, if Bush keeps vetoing such measures, the voters will give the Democrats that two-thirds majority in the election of 2008. He may be also telling his Republican colleagues to step up and change Iraq policy now, even if their president won’t, or risk facing not only a more ravaged Iraq, a more turbulent Middle East, and a more exhausted U.S. Army—but also the shattering of their party and the end of their careers.