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By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – As the chest-thumping and hand-wringing among our nation’s political class grows in response to the situation in Ukraine, I find myself thinking of a conversation I had with former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
Lugar and I talked in early December 2001, less than three months after the 9/11 attacks. Lugar was speaking at the Indiana Civil Liberties Union Annual Dinner about the crisis before us. I was the ICLU’s executive director then.
As we worked our way through our meals and he waited to speak, Lugar and I talked about what the response to the most deadly attacks on America since Pearl Harbor should be.
What constitutes victory? I asked. Once we’ve gotten into this fight, how do we get back out?
Lugar looked at his plate for a long moment before answering.
“That’s the big question,” he said. “I’m not sure anyone knows.”
Another long pause.
“It’s something about which I think a lot,” he said.
As we talked further, it became clear that Lugar’s thorough mind was working through the problem with a kind of relentless efficiency. He was weighing America’s interests, the moral challenges of waging war in the undeveloped world and the difficulties of exiting from such a conflict with the precision of a digital scale.
Even though he was as outraged as any other American by the 9/11 attacks, he was determined to think calmly, clearly, maturely about the problems before his country.
He knew he’d been elected, again and again, to be the guy who kept his head under pressure. The guy who wouldn’t do something stupid or damaging out of pride or fear or excitement.
Flash forward more than a dozen years.
Lugar now is out of office, kicked to the curb by the Republican Party that he served with devotion for a half-century – 36 of those years in the U.S. Senate, where he earned a reputation as the sanest voice around when it came to foreign policy.
As the conflict plays out in the Ukraine – and American leaders, particularly those in Lugar’s party, speak out – it has become clear how much we miss Dick Lugar.
And just how far away from rationality his party has drifted.
Consider the example of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has accused the Obama administration of showing insufficient manliness in dealing with Russia. Graham said that he rolls his eyes every time Obama tries to talk tough. For good measure, Graham added that Obama’s “weakness” started with Benghazi, one of the ongoing obsessions of the paranoid right.
Graham faces a strong primary challenge this year and some of his blustery inanity can be attributed to a desire to pander to a Republican base that has a fantasy about American omnipotence.
But Graham’s not alone.
Too many other Republican leaders are making this an emotional drama rather than a complicated foreign policy challenge.
What’s missing from the discussion is the thing Dick Lugar always supplied.
A reality check.
Without him, there are no voices in his party – and few voices anywhere – asking the important questions.
What are America’s interests here? What would constitute success? If we were to go in, how we would go about getting back out? What would the costs be? And what would we gain from the pain and sacrifice we would have to endure?
A lot of American elected officials now want to talk tough about Russia, Ukraine and Crimea.
Lugar was plenty tough – tougher than many of the leaders who seem to spend most of their time thumping their chests.
But he also was and is smart.
Smart enough to know that fights are easier to get into than they are to end.
Smart enough to always think about the end game.
It’s a pity we don’t have that kind of intelligence – Richard Lugar’s brand of smarts – on the national stage right now.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College students.