Centrists Finally Give Up on Iraq

conason richard lugar Centrists Finally Give Up on IraqSenator Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who has long served as his party’s voice of moderation on foreign affairs, is better known for judiciousness than courage. As the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has certainly taken his time assessing the catastrophic war in Iraq.

But in a speech on the Senate floor this week, Mr. Lugar served notice that administration policy is failing.

“In my judgment, the costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved,” he said. “Persisting indefinitely with the surge strategy will delay policy adjustments that have a better chance of protecting our vital interests over the long term.”

Although the Senator didn’t specify precisely the policy adjustments he would favor, his warning came well in advance of the September deadline for the “surge” that other Republicans have suggested. What the Lugar speech made clear is that the center will no longer hold for President Bush’s war.

Washington’s self-styled centrists, as usual, are trailing far behind public opinion, which is strongly polarized against the war and in favor of disengagement. Indeed, centrists in both parties have enabled the neoconservatives in the White House by repeatedly failing to speak out about their destructive fantasies and stunning incompetence as, year by year, we sank more deeply in the quicksand. Smugly congratulating themselves on their own “seriousness” while mocking the liberals who foresaw and opposed this disaster, the politicians and pundits of the center have a lot to answer for.

From time to time, perhaps while perusing a poll, a moderate Republican has whispered a few words of dissent. For the most part, however, they have ignored every opportunity to promote a change in course, most memorably last winter when the Iraq Study Group provided them with perfect bipartisan political cover. Like the Congressional Democrats, who fumbled for other reasons, the Republican moderates never strongly endorsed the report’s recommendations, which included direct engagement with Iran and Syria, stronger pressure for reconciliation on the Iraqi government and real negotiations with the insurgents (other than Al Qaeda).

When nobody in Congress stepped up to demand implementation of those shifts, the silence created space for President Bush and Vice President Cheney to escalate the war. In a Senate divided almost evenly, with the Democratic majority depending on Senator Joseph Lieberman, the war enthusiast and Bush lackey, the White House has prevailed because moderate Republicans have lacked the fortitude to tell the truth. Perhaps the Lugar speech will end that disgraceful pattern.

But if the moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill realize that they must break with the Bush administration—which shows no sign of abandoning escalation and permanent occupation—they will also need to suggest alternative policies when the surge funding ends in September. Since they are usually bereft of original ideas, they should consider a recent paper written by Carlos Pascual and Larry Diamond and issued by the Brookings Institution. (Although Brookings is liberal by reputation, its offices actually shelter many centrists and very few progressives. Mr. Diamond, for instance, is a longtime associate of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and served in Iraq as a Bush administration advisor.)