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Lugar Explains His Criticism of President Bush’s Plan for Iraq

June 26, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: When Senator Richard Lugar told his colleagues last night that the U.S. troop surge in Iraq is not working, Washington took notice. Lugar is former chairman, now ranking Republican, on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has consistently voted with the president on the war.

But in last night’s 40-minute speech, he said it’s time to start reducing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and to launch a new diplomatic offensive to protect America’s long-term interests in the region. Senator Lugar joins us now to talk about all this.

And, Senator Lugar, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), Indiana: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Why did you decide to speak out in this way? And why now?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: I decided to speak because I think now is the time that the president has an opportunity to gain a bipartisan foreign policy in Iraq and in the Middle East. Specifically, the surge situation is one that is being brilliantly handled by our military, but the basic reasons, among many, were to give the Iraqis time, the Iraqi parliament time to pass laws, make fundamental decisions, to train Iraqi troops and policemen.

And likewise, it was to try to cut down on sectarian violence. The president, in a very humane way, felt that somehow interposing our troops between Sunnis and Shiites who wanted to kill each other would mitigate some of that harm, and I think that it has.

The problem is that the sectarian violence throughout Iraq is still pervasive. The parliament is not going to be able to take the essential steps. I saw the foreign minister of Iraq last week. He said, you’ve got to understand we need a consensus, not just 50 percent in the vote. Even if we get an oil law, it’s not really clear that it could be enforced, that the oil that’s now being siphoned off and the corrupt administration of Iraq could be handled, that the Iraqi administration could give constituent services.

That’s why I believe, rather than going on with the surge, waiting for General Petraeus’ report and then subsequent reports and so forth, we ought to reposition our American forces in other places in Iraq where they have greater safety and certainty of being able to stay there and keep stability.

We ought to bring some of them out of Iraq at this point, because the status of our Armed Forces is very stretched. We have obligations in the Middle East, but also around the world, so that’s the reason for speaking out now in these terms.

Arguing for withdrawl

MARGARET WARNER: Senator, the White House said today -- as you well know, the White House spokesman -- that your call is just premature, that, at the very least, we ought to wait until General Petraeus gives his report in September. You seem to suggest that that's not only futile, but actually damaging. Why?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: It's damaging, because there will be more American casualties before September. There will not be much progress by the Iraqi parliament and government. And, as a matter of fact, Iraqis all over the country are now taking decisions on their own, quite apart from us. We should have anticipated that. We're not in a position to govern the whole country, nor do we want to do so.

What is also being lost is the potential for a diplomatic initiative, by that I mean Iraqis and Americans working together to pull together in conferences that move continuously of the neighboring countries, so they keep an eye on each other, so we keep an eye on them, so that Iraq is not divided by other outside interests and there are not havens for terrorists.

These are very important objectives that I believe are not being fulfilled in the current conditions.

MARGARET WARNER: And you believe that, if the United States government waits until, say, the fall to even come to this determination, that, what, the political climate, the '08 political calendar will so have poisoned the atmosphere that it will make it harder to come up with that kind of a plan?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Yes. In my speech, and thus far in this interview, I've talked just about Iraq. But in the speech, I talked about the United States of America.

We're in a situation in which we have a premature political campaign for president, perhaps, but maybe equally premature for Congress. There is a window of opportunity, I hope, at this point -- I pray, at this point -- that as Republicans and Democrats we could work together with the president for a foreign policy in the Middle East that would be very helpful for our overall objectives. But I think that window is closing very rapidly.

Now, you can say, after all, the president is the president, and he may continue on with whatever policies he wants. And Congress has the power of the purse, but I can think of no member of Congress who wants to harm our troops, who wants to bring support for them down. So, as a result, we will have one inconclusive resolution after another about timetables, and benchmarks, and other designs to embarrass the president or one political party or another. This is very damaging, damaging to us and to our status in the world.

I talked to German parliamentarians today who would welcome the change in policy that I suggested. It might offer new opportunities for Germany to participate and for other countries, who for the moment think that we have been on the wrong track for a long while and would welcome, as a matter of fact, some new opportunity.

"Continue training Iraqi troops"

MARGARET WARNER: You talk about it's time to start redeploying U.S. forces in the region, some of them to leave Iraq, but yet you say continue training Iraqi troops, but don't interpose American troops between the fighting sectarian factions. How would that work? I mean, how realistic is that? Aren't we either in or out?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Well, we are in Iraq, so long as the Iraqis are preparing to work with us, and I believe that they will. I mentioned the foreign minister that I saw last week, and he very clearly anticipates that we are going to leave at one point or another, and probably fairly soon, but it would be very helpful if we stayed in positions in camps or so forth where we could do the training and where we are close by, in case somebody invades Iraq, in case there is very troubled times between the Turks and the Kurds, for example, sort of in another part of the country, very hopeful that that might happen.

The reason that it won't work now is because we are having to build walls in Baghdad to keep Shiites and Sunnis from killing each other. This is one reason why the casualties are down. People cannot get to each other to shoot at each other. To interpose ourselves in this way indefinitely is not a good idea.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, last night, you called on your fellow senators. You said it's time for all of us or all of you to do some rethinking on your own. It's not just the president who needs to rethink.


MARGARET WARNER: Do you have reason to believe, based on your private conversations, that other Republican senators already believe as you do and might be ready to follow in your wake, as Senator Voinovich did today?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Well, they may not want to follow in my wake. They may have very independent views. But I think they are all thinking, thinking very hard about this, and trying to think how they can work with the president, and that is my point. It is not to get into an adversarial situation.

The success of our American foreign policy depends upon an administration and a Congress finally working together. Right now, the Gallup poll shows that the 71 percent of the American people believe that our policy is failing. That's a huge percentage. That won't work. We've got to get 71 percent back on track in America, quite apart from those of us who have some responsibility in Washington.

Working together on policy

MARGARET WARNER: Since you feel so strongly about this, though, if the president shows no sign of being interested in that kind of a conversation, are you ready to join in any of the Democratic measures that are sure to come back to the floor of the Senate even before September to restrict funding or set timetables, at least as a way of forcing his hand?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Well, I have no idea what might be offered. Thus far, most of the resolutions that have been offered were clearly for the record. They would have no practical effect.

I think we really have to be most thoughtful, if we're going to do a legislative project, as to what the bounds of Congress are at this particular point, without the harm of our troops who are still in harm's way, as this policy continues. So this is going to have to be a very sophisticated operation; I've not yet seen resolutions offered in these appropriations debates that would make any particular difference.

MARGARET WARNER: But it sounds like you're not completely ruling it out, if there were a resolution that you thought actually took a reasoned and sensible approach to this extrication that you suggest?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Well, a resolution or maybe even a program. I have no idea how we might sketch together something that, in effect, makes a difference in this without causing harm to Americans.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, Senator Biden, the chairman of the committee, your colleague, said late this afternoon that he would very much like to work with you on coming up with some such plan or proposal and including with the president. Are you interested in that? Are you going to pursue that with him?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Well, I've not visited with Senator Biden, but I have great respect for him. We've worked together very successfully for many years.

And, as a matter of fact, in the course of this day, I have had conversations with many senators who have made similar proposals. They would really like to work together, like to sit down, try to think through what is a reasonable policy, that will be a credit to them as authors, but likewise will have some possibilities of changing the course of presidential and White House views so that we are not in confrontation and we are in cooperation.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Richard Lugar, thanks being with us.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Thank you, Margaret.