Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

01 July 2007

A Salute to Senator Lugar

One day after I posted my diatribe blasting Republicans in Congress for acting like lemmings, Senator Richard Lugar (R. Ind.) broke ranks with the president on the War in Iraq. As widely reported, he recognized the bankruptcy of our Iraq policy. He cited “three factors—the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military, and the constraints of our own domestic political process—[that] are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame.” His epiphany may yet breathe some realism into a moribund Republican war strategy.

Lugar decisively repudiated the pipe dream of a unified and peaceful Iraq. “Few Iraqi leaders,” he said, “are willing to make sacrifices or expose themselves to risks on behalf of the type of unified Iraq that the Bush Administration had envisioned. In contrast, there are many Iraqi leaders who are deeply invested in a sectarian or tribal agenda. More often than not, these agendas involve not just the protection of fellow Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, but the expansion of territorial dominance and economic privileges.” He cited numerous specific examples of Iraqi fractiousness that make achieving unity totally unrealistic, at least in any reasonable time frame. He therefore called for carefully winding down our combat role in Iraq and strategically redeploying our troops, beginning soon.

After making his speech, Lugar even hinted at using Congress’ power of the purse to force a change in Iraq war policy. Implicitly, he repudiated his fellow Republicans’ lockstep and feckless support for a policy whose failure is now self-evident.

Senator Lugar is a deliberate and thoughtful man, and his break with the president has been a long time coming. He told the president of his misgivings about the surge, in private, at least as early as this January.

When his time came to dissent publicly, Lugar presented his views in a thorough and thoughtful speech on the Senate floor. The speech reportedly took weeks to prepare. It was and is a brilliantly incisive analysis of how our present position in Iraq gravely harms our long-term strategic interests.

Lugar’s speech on Iraq gives us the “big picture” that few in our nation have imagined, let alone painted in public. Everyone who cares about our country and our troops in Iraq should read it. It’s not that long, and it’s well written.

Lugar emphasized the importance of solving major strategic problems outside of Iraq, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and our abject dependence on Mideast oil. He also connected the dots between our energy dependence and our entire Mideast posture:
    “Do not underestimate the impact on Iran and other nations of a concerted U.S. campaign to reduce our oil consumption. A credible, well-publicized campaign to definitively change the oil import equation would reverberate throughout the Middle East. It would be the equivalent of opening a new front in Middle Eastern policy that does not depend on the good will of any other country.”
Much neglected by the media was a key point of his speech. Lugar did not call for “cutting and running.” Instead, he called for extricating ourselves from the Iraqi civil war but staying in the region as a stabilizing force. He envisaged a deliberate and careful strategic downsizing and redeployment of our combat troops, to places like Kuwait and Iraqi Kurdistan, that would take six months to a year.

Lugar also advocated deliberate and careful planning for the redeployment, to begin immediately. As he put it: “In 2003, we witnessed the costs that came with insufficient planning for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. It is absolutely essential that we not repeat the same mistake. The longer we delay the planning for a re-deployment, the less likely it is to be successful.” In these words, Lugar warned against continued Republican stubbornness, which could turn strategic redeployment into a rout when the overwhelming public revulsion toward this war has its way.

As Lugar delivered his speech, he was largely alone on the Senate floor, except for C-Span. By sheer force of reason, he sought to restore the Senate’s meaning and power, which lobbying, corruption and mindless partisanship have largely dissipated. His colleagues’ absence was a telling comment on our times.

This is not the first time that Lugar has played senior statesman in the Senate. Last August he made an equally thoughtful and important speech on energy policy. Again, he touched all the bases: global warming, our energy dependence, its adverse effect on our national security, the conflict between our values and the world oil cartel’s, the precariousness of the foreign oil supplies on which we depend, and the opportunity for building new industries—with international scope—to reduce our dependence. He emphasized the boon to our economy that building a world-class non-fossil-fuel energy industry would achieve.

Like his Iraq war speech, Lugar’s energy speech broke with most of his fellow Republicans. It recognized global warming as an important and urgent problem months before the president did. It implicitly repudiated the Bush Administration’s mindless servility to the oil and gas industry. Some commentators dismissed it as another midwest senator jumping on the ethanol bandwagon to get farmers’ votes. But it was much more than that. It was a thoughtful and comprehensive review of our energy policy, its grievous errors, and what we can and should do to correct them.

Lugar deserves immense credit for these speeches. He truly “gets it.” He understands how Iraq fits into our broader geostrategic interests and how energy independence would affect both. He reminds us what the Senate could be if it abjured partisan games and returned to being the world’s greatest deliberative body. John McCain may be the Republican party’s conscience, but Lugar is its brain.

Senator Lugar’s contribution to better policy is not limited to these two speeches. He has also been one of Senator Barack Obama’s chief mentors in the Senate.

As Obama reveals in his book, The Audacity of Hope, Lugar “crossed the aisle” to take the freshman senator from Illinois under his wing. Lugar helped Obama get a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then he took Obama on a series of trips to Russia to oversee the process of destroying and securing Russia’s nukes. In so doing, he gave Obama valuable experience in foreign affairs that Obama will need as president.

In mentoring Obama, Lugar did more than just help a promising senator from a neighboring state. He also recognized a kindred spirit. Both men are powerful thinkers. Unlike many of their Senate colleagues, both are serious men who dislike partisan games. They address real problems with complete, thoughtful and comprehensive analysis, full of nuance and detail. Both have the kind of mind that we need so desperately in formulating national policy but have lacked for so long.

Unfortunately for Lugar (and for us), Lugar has none of Obama’s charisma and common touch. He comes across as avuncular and feckless. His speaking style is so low key as to recall the famous line in Yeats’ immortal poem, “The Second Coming,” that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” His forgettable speaking style undermines his intellectual leadership.

But in writing Lugar is a powerful thinker. His key speeches bear careful reading. No doubt he would make a good president, but in this age of style, sound bites and bumper stickers he has no chance of becoming one. His party alone is a formidable obstacle to a man of reason and deliberation and will remain so until the Bush Administration’s pall of blundering demagoguery dissipates.

Yet we can still hope that Lugar’s obvious talent will not go to waste. As a dedicated non-partisan, Obama should and probably will reach across the aisle in selecting his cabinet. What better choice could he make than Lugar, who shares his intelligence, commitment to reason, thoughtfulness and care?

Lugar would make an excellent Energy Secretary. He could transform the function of that office from pandering to the oil, gas and coal industries to building the infrastructure for a new and more secure energy future, with geostrategic interests in mind. At the same time, he could serve the Obama Administration as a thoughtful and prudent senior advisor. What better way to repay Lugar’s mentoring than to recruit his sharp analytical mind to serve us all?

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