Is the mild-mannered senator a grenade-thrower or a Bush stalking horse?
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.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Sen. Richard Luger by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.