Lugar Plays It Safe in the Senate

by Brian Bolduc
Is the Indiana statesman leading from behind?

John Shaw recently wrote a biography of Indiana’s senior senator entitled Richard G. Lugar, Statesman of the Senate: Crafting Foreign Policy from Capitol Hill. The book tells the story of “one of the most widely respected foreign policy experts in Congress for over three decades,” according to the online book description. Former senator Sam Nunn called the book “a close-up look at the dedication, effectiveness, and outstanding public service of Senator Dick Lugar.” Former secretary of state George Shultz also endorsed it, saying, “Lugar is a true ‘statesman of the Senate’ who, from the Reagan years to the present, has had a major influence on U.S. foreign policy.”

Conservative foreign-policy experts tell National Review Online, however, that Lugar has lost the influence he once wielded.

Elected in 1976, Lugar is the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has served as chairman twice, from 1985 to 1987 and from 2003 to 2007. In that time, he has acquired an expertise that both Democrats and Republicans respect.

“Senator Lugar’s long tenure in Washington has been used against him in the primary by a challenger who talks about his having a Washington mind-set,” says Peter Feaver, a professor from Duke University who served as special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform at the National Security Council from June 2005 to July 2007. “But it’s that same long tenure [that] gave him the chance to become deeply expert on national-security and foreign-policy matters.”

Lugar’s greatest accomplishment was the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Established in 1991, the law, which Lugar co-wrote with Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, provides funding for programs to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the former states of the Soviet Union. “In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the loose-nukes problem was one of the highest-priority threats to American national security,” Feaver says. “And the Nunn-Lugar program was an important measure that addressed it.” Despite the law’s failings, Feaver dubs it “a clear net plus.”

Lugar also led the Republican party on several other issues. In 1986, for instance, he served as the U.S. representative overseeing elections in the Philippines between longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos and democratic opponent Corazon Aquino. Although the Ronald Reagan administration initially backed Marcos and claimed that election irregularities had occurred on both sides, Lugar sided with Aquino. Eventually, Reagan decided to back the challenger as well.

Nonetheless, one conservative foreign-policy expert says Lugar is “sometimes excessively cautious and too deferential to multilateral organizations.” Because of this, other senators have eclipsed Lugar, the expert believes. Consider: Arizona senator Jon Kyl led the Republican effort to revise the New START treaty in 2010. And his colleague, Senator John McCain, was the face of Senate GOP support for the surge in Iraq in 2007. Lugar supported New START more enthusiastically than Kyl did, and he opposed the surge in Iraq.

Lugar also takes a more old-fashioned approach toward his senatorial duties: He believes in a more rigid separation of powers. “By 2006, Lugar was thinking the U.S. needs to get out of Iraq, though he didn’t come out and say it,” the expert says. “His sense was that [it’s] the president’s job to make that call. ‘I can quietly raise concerns, but I’m not comfortable getting out front on that.’ ”

Another analyst agrees. “If you look at the key issues playing out in the national-security space right now, Dick Lugar really isn’t a leader on any of them,” the analyst says. “Senators Mark Kirk and Senator Bob Menendez are more active on issues such as Iranian sanctions. Dick Lugar is nowhere to be found.”

Lugar did raise serious questions about U.S. involvement in Libya. “My guess on Libya is a lot of that was driven by the primary battle,” the analyst adds. “With his amount of experience, he has at least the ability to be a leading voice if he wants to. I think it is just striking you haven’t seen him lead on more of these issues.” In other words, Lugar hews to the mean in foreign-policy thinking and so is unlikely to push his colleagues in any particular direction.

But Jeff Bergner, a former Lugar staff director on the Foreign Relations Committee, says Lugar was influential on recent issues such as the 2008 U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. “Without his support, the agreement certainly would not have gone anywhere,” Bergner says. “He played a role in advocating for it. He was integral in getting then-senators Joe Biden and Barack Obama on board.”

Dick Lugar may be a reservoir of knowledge, but the contention that he is hugely influential in the Senate is, at the least, debatable.

— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.