Home The Washington Diplomat March 2008

Richard Lugar: Senate Statesman

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Veteran Politician Brings Nuanced Understanding to Complex World Affairs

One of the last places in the world you would expect to find a senior U.S. senator during the waning days of the summer is on the Western fringes of Siberia gazing at a half-finished bridge.

But for Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the two-time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now its ranking Republican, the bridge he was looking at was a symbol of cooperation between the United States and Russia and a harbinger of hope that the world will be able to secure, and then dispose of, weapons of mass destruction.

When completed, the bridge over the Miass River that the senator was inspecting will be used to move almost 2 million artillery rounds and warheads filled with sarin, soman and VX chemical agents from poorly secured, half dilapidated, barn-like buildings to a state-of-the-art weapons destruction facility a few miles away.

Lugar was participating in a weeklong visit to Russia, Ukraine and Albania in 2007 to assess U.S.-funded programs aimed at securing and controlling weapons of mass destruction.

Several months later, the senator visited Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to promote increased cooperation on energy security. Traveling across Central Asia in the dead of winter, Lugar met with business leaders and government officials to get an update on the geopolitics of energy in that crucial region of the world.

In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Lugar said these fact-finding trips are necessary for U.S. lawmakers to better understand the world. “These trips are important to learn, to show your interest, to see how programs are working on the ground, to get to know foreign leaders and government officials, to get to understand other countries,” he said.

Lugar is often described as the statesman of the Senate. First elected in 1976, he is the longest-serving senator in Indiana history. A former mayor of Indianapolis and still a farmer, Lugar has a broad worldview and a fascination with the mechanics of government programs. He is also a visionary who revels in the details.

Joe Biden (D-Del.), the current Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, frequently jokes that Lugar has forgotten more about international affairs than most American lawmakers ever learn.

With fluency and ease, Lugar can discuss the intricacies of Ukrainian politics, the tangled history of the Law of the Sea Treaty, or the nuances of arms control treaties and chemical weapons destruction protocols.

Soften-spoken and affable, he is also tough and tenacious. Lugar is one of those rare U.S. lawmakers who understands the substance of international affairs, is willing to work hard at non-glamorous issues, and is effective in shaping U.S. foreign policy from Capitol Hill. And to accomplish this, he is willing to do the time-consuming and tedious tasks of lawmaking that garner no headlines and confer few political benefits.

“Dick Lugar,” says former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, “is completely first class. He is as good as they get.”

Former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn calls Lugar one of the stars of Capitol Hill. “If you gave out a most valuable legislator award, Sen. Lugar would get it almost every year,” Nunn said.

Lugar does not get as many headlines as some of his Senate colleagues—John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to name three obvious candidates—but his legislative record as a senator is far more substantial than any of theirs. Interested in a wide range of international issues, Lugar now focuses acutely on what he calls the “two existential issues” facing the United States: energy independence and controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Lugar is a co-architect of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which analysts say is one of the most successful government programs in a generation. It seeks to secure and then destroy weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.

“The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains the number-one national security threat facing the United States and the international community,” Lugar declared.

The senator warns that the United States lacks even minimal confidence about many foreign weapons programs. Specifically, the U.S. government often has little or no information on the number of weapons or amounts of material a country may have produced, the storage procedures they employ to safeguard their weapons, or their plans regarding further production or destruction programs. Thus, he urges the U.S. government to pay much more attention to ensuring that all weapons and materials of mass destruction are identified, continuously guarded and systematically destroyed.

For more than a decade, Lugar has also been a national leader and creative thinker on energy policy, and he argues that several key factors are fundamentally changing the energy debate. These include: the exploding demand for energy; the vulnerability of energy supplies to terrorism and warfare; the increasing concentration of energy assets in the hands of problematic governments; the growing willingness of these governments to use energy as a geopolitical weapons; and the evidence that climate change has accelerated.

Unless there is “revolutionary change” soon in U.S. energy policy, he warns, the nation is risking a future with constrained living standards, imperiled foreign policy goals, and acute vulnerability to economic and political disasters.

Lugar believes Congress and the private sector can make incremental advances on energy policy, but fundamental national progress will require presidential leadership.

Moreover, he says that meaningful progress to relieve energy dependence will require an almost single-minded national focus on solving specific energy deficiencies. A large, unfocused campaign to achieve a vague state of “energy independence” almost guarantees that no objective will receive the necessary resources and attention to overcome technological obstacles and societal inertia, Lugar argues, noting that like a military campaign, the United States should maintain pressure for change on a broad front, but also achieve breakouts that yield rapid results and demonstrate what is possible.

The senator has outlined two main energy-related goals that the United States can begin working toward. First, the nation should set a goal of making competitively priced biofuels available to every American motorist, which would transform the U.S. transportation sector.

Second, the United States should radically increase the number of miles per gallon of the nation’s automobile fleet through the expansion of flexible fuel, plug-ins and other highly efficient cars that can get hundreds of miles to the gallon of gasoline.

Lugar said he wants to be an “agent provocateur” who “keeps pushing the envelope relentlessly and even gets people to leap outside the envelope” on energy policy.

“We need bold new approaches, and we need to forge bipartisan coalitions to address the challenge of oil independence,” he said. “For me, this is not fooling around with interesting new projects, but a fundamental feeling that our national security depends on our working on this.”

And Lugar vows he will continue his work on energy issues and weapons of mass destruction as long as he is in the Senate. “These are long-term projects that you have to keep working on. Fortunately Senate terms are of sufficient length that you can undertake long-term projects. If you are fortunate, you can even outlast administrations.”

Capitol Corner is a new series scheduled to appear every other month that will examine U.S. politicians and the causes they champion.

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999