Rise of the ‘silent center’

There were no trumpets and no drums. No crowds cheering, no paparazzi scrambling. This was, after all, the U.S. Senate. And it was, after all, almost 8 p.m. Monday, and the prime-time TV news was over and tomorrow’s front pages were largely set.

So the last thing on the minds of the few strays roaming the Senate floor and yawning in the public and press galleries above was that they were about to witness a genuine profiles-in-courage moment in a capital city that has become all profile and no courage.

The silent center was speaking out at last.

In calm, measured Midwestern tones, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, broke sharply with President Bush on the Iraq war. Lugar called for an end to the U.S. military surge, a downsizing of U.S. troops and an urgent rethinking and remaking of Iraq policy. Lugar also administered a velvet lashing of partisans on the left and right who have been playing politics with war.

“The prospects that the current ‘surge’ strategy will succeed in the way originally envisioned by the president are very limited within the short period framed by our own domestic political debate,” Lugar said. “And the strident, polarized nature of that debate increases the risk that our involvement in Iraq will end in a poorly planned withdrawal that undercuts our vital interests in the Middle East.”

The senator called on the president to “downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq and place much more emphasis on diplomatic and economic options.” And called on members of Congress “to be receptive to overtures by the president to construct a new policy outside the binary choice of surge versus withdrawal.”

Lugar pointedly addressed his colleagues: “I speak to my fellow senators when I say that the president is not the only American leader who will have to make adjustments to his or her thinking. Each of us should take a step back from the sloganeering rhetoric and political opportunism that has sometimes characterized this debate.”

While Gen. David Petraeus is scheduled to report in September on the results of the surge, which added more than 30,000 troops in Iraq, preliminary comments by Petraeus and others have been to the effect that a much longer effort may be needed. Rather than wait for the general’s formal report, Lugar chose a pre-emptive leadership strike.

“The president and some of his advisers may be tempted to pursue the surge strategy to the end of his administration, but such a course contains extreme risks for U.S. national security. … In my judgment, the costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved. Persisting indefinitely with the surge strategy will delay policy adjustments that have a better chance of protecting our vital interests over the long term.”

Lugar concluded that a political settlement of the civil-war disputes of Shia, Sunnis and Kurds — and the factions within those factions — is most unlikely and can’t be won militarily. “Few Iraqis have demonstrated that they want to be Iraqis,” he said. “… the Bush administration must avoid becoming so quixotic in its attempt to achieve its optimum forecasts for Iraq that it misses other opportunities to protect our vital interests in the Middle East.”

Lugar’s call prompted quick bipartisan reaction. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada hailed it as “brilliant, courageous” and a “turning point” in the Iraq war. (Interestingly, Lugar aides had been negotiating with Reid’s office to find 50 minutes so Lugar could make his speech in the morning, so it could get a full day of media traction — but all he got was that near-empty chamber late at night.) Meanwhile, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, backed Lugar’s call the next day.

And at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, White House press secretary Tony Snow said only that the administration wanted to give the surge more time to work. But Lugar’s view is that “we are running out of time to implement a thoughtful Plan B…” Leading from the no-longer-silent center, Lugar concluded that “the administration and Congress must suspend what has become almost knee-jerk political combat over Iraq. Those who offer constructive criticism of the surge strategy are not defeatists, any more than those who warn against a precipitous withdrawal are militarists. We need to move Iraq policy beyond the politics of the moment and re-establish a broad consensus on the role of the United States in the Middle East.”

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)