Striving to elevate Iraq debate
Chicago Tribune
By Michael Tackett

Having failed, apparently, to get the ear of the Bush administration in any significant way when it comes to Iraq policy, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has quietly been trying another target audience: fellow members of Congress.

Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently released the 12th in a series of letters to the other 534 lawmakers giving them his primer on developments in Iraq. The letters are written in the detached, non-threatening tone that is a trademark of the studious–sometimes even tedious–Lugar, one of the nation’s leading voices on international affairs.

He is among the last of the fading Washington tradition of the wise man, one whose views are enlisted not for their bile but for their brainpower. This is rarely that kind of town anymore. We last looked at Lugar’s advice to the president about Iraq almost two years ago. Little has changed, and Lugar has only been proven more correct over time.

In the letters to Congress, he tries to convince lawmakers–perhaps most notably fellow Republicans facing election this fall–that they need to be armed with the best information even if it is a departure from White House talking points.

He provides links to studies that give even more detail. It is serious, sober, rational and quite likely not read by the many members of Congress who are too busy trying to secure bookings on cable news channels so they can spout off pro or con.

That is, in some respects, the fate of Lugar, now 76 and in the winter of his political life: still pushing the stone of logic and reason and knowledge uphill, refusing to believe that no one will listen. His letters, he says, are an effort to “strive to elevate our debate by studying thoughtful sources of information and embracing civility in our discourse.”

Not too many in Washington talk like that, and fewer still believe it when they say it.

His first letter was sent Dec. 2, and in it he conceded what has now become obvious: “Some debate that has occurred both inside and outside of Congress has not been well-informed or has failed to acknowledge the complexities that we face as we try to achieve stability in Iraq.”

He encouraged his colleagues not to take what the administration had to say about Iraq at face value but to do independent research. So Lugar, a durable member of the GOP, recommended that his colleagues study reports from the Brookings Institution, hardly the preserve of conservative thought.

He mentioned the report again in his next letter, which followed a major speech on Iraq by President Bush before Iraqi elections. The report had some positive findings but was overwhelmingly cautionary, particularly as it related to Iraq’s oil industry and ingrained culture of corruption.

Later in the month, it was Lugar who urged Congress to take a more careful look at Iran’s possible role in unrest in Iraq and Iran’s own nuclear ambitions. “Beyond Iran’s impact on our efforts in Iraq, we must understand how the outcome in Iraq will affect our pursuit of national security objectives related to Iran and the Persian Gulf region.”

Was anyone listening?

Not every letter was a study in subtle criticism. He had praise for the election process, noting that the turnout rate was higher than in this country.

But many were the warning signs. He cited a “frequent” witness before the Foreign Relations Committee, Iraq specialist Phebe Marr, who cautioned that voting was organized “around ethnicity and sect, rather than platform and mutual interest … second, oil will be a key component in holding the state together.”

Other letters address funding, encouraging members to follow the money that many voted for with so little hesitation. One not-so-small matter: No one envisioned that $5.8billion out of $18.5 billion appropriated for reconstruction in the 2004 fiscal year would have to be used to train and equip security forces. Lugar noted how this made each reconstruction dollar shrivel.

What’s more, he asserted, corruption in the oil industry is “systemic.”

In April, he told members how Iraqis view their own situation, based on a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute. Three-quarters of those surveyed regarded security positions as poor. A majority of Iraqis had a very pessimistic outlook for their country for the next six months, and for many, the next five years.

The most recent letter, released late last month, provides members with a roster of newly elected Iraqi officials. “It is important that we come to know its new leaders and begin to identify Iraq with them.”

A proposition as noble as it is doubtful.

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