Sen. 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, 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.”

His warning came well in advance of the September deadline for the “surge” that other Republicans have suggested, indicating 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. Centrists in both parties 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 deeper in the quicksand. Smugly congratulating themselves on their own “seriousness” while mocking liberals who foresaw this disaster, the politicians (and pundits) of the center have much to answer for.

Occasionally a moderate Republican has whispered a dissent. But for the most part, GOP moderates 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 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-Qaida).

When nobody in Congress stepped up to demand implementation of the ISG report, the silence permitted President Bush and Vice President Cheney to escalate the war. In a Senate divided almost evenly, with the Democratic majority depending on war enthusiast Joe Lieberman, the White House has prevailed because moderate Republicans 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 need an alternative policy come September. They should consider a recent paper written by Carlos Pascual and Larry Diamond for the Brookings Institution. (Although Brookings is liberal by reputation, its offices mainly accommodate centrists and shelter very few progressives. Diamond, for instance, is a longtime associate of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and served in Iraq as a Bush administration adviser.)

Essentially, Pascual and Diamond reiterate the Iraq Study Group’s maxim that the United States cannot resolve the war with military force and that diplomacy is essential. They too propose a multilateral peace process, under the auspices of the United Nations, leading to a “Dayton-style” conference that would result in a comprehensive settlement involving all the warring parties in Iraq.

Invited to the bargaining table would be “those elements of the Sunni insurgency who are consequential and willing to talk.” The features of such an accord would include sharing of oil revenues, regional autonomy, political inclusion of some former Baathists, amnesty for most insurgents and the disarmament of Shiite and Sunni militia forces.

But the two scholars advocate a further step.

“Once the roundtable negotiations begin, it should be made clear to the parties that failure to achieve a peace agreement would trigger a comprehensive and agonizing reappraisal of U.S. engagement in Iraq,” they write. If the proposed negotiations implode (or never begin), then the U.S. should redeploy all its forces out of Iraq and into friendly neighboring states in order to contain the regional consequences of Iraq’s civil war.

And if the Bush administration refuses to consider this alternative?

In that case, Congress should use its budgetary powers to set a September 2008 deadline, demonstrating both “the seriousness of American resolve to use its military presence to create the conditions for a political settlement, while making it unambiguously clear that the United States will not continue to deploy forces if Iraqis do not take advantage of a credible international diplomatic initiative to help broker peace.”

This isn’t the plan that Democrats want, but it might encourage Republicans to begin retreating from the disaster they have created.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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