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Role reversal

When it comes to Iraq, Sen. Richard Lugar seems to have lost his voice and Sen. John Warner has found his.

January 28, 2007

SEN. RICHARD G. LUGAR (R-Ind.) was once considered one of the Senate's foremost foreign policy experts, while Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) was, well, not. Now, if you believe the Beltway buzz, their reputations have been reversed. Even if that reversal were justified -- and it isn't -- it shows that the president isn't the only politician in Washington whose career has been hobbled by Iraq.

Until the Iraq war, Lugar was seen as an elder statesman whose sound foreign policy counsel changed presidential minds for the better. His greatest hits included persuading Ronald Reagan to dump corrupt Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and outmaneuvering GOP cold warriors to pass the landmark Nunn-Lugar law, which paid the collapsing Soviet Union to safeguard its nuclear arsenal.

But like his friend, Colin L. Powell, Lugar found himself frozen out by the Bush administration even as he continued showing loyalty to his president -- to the dismay of his liberal admirers. Lugar's erstwhile fans could not understand why the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman allowed himself to be rolled over by the Bush administration. Even after losing his chairmanship to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Lugar hasn't challenged the White House on Iraq, offering only some mildly expressed concern about the surge strategy.

Although Lugar had previously enjoyed a reputation as one of the Senate's brightest, the courtly Warner has not radiated the same glow. As chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, Warner was seen as the military's chief champion on Capitol Hill, stern in his defense of both military budgets and martial honor.

Because of Warner's long-reliable pro-military vote and support for Bush's foreign policy, it came as a shock to the body politic when the former Navy secretary returned from a trip to Iraq last October and declared bluntly that Congress would have to make "bold decisions" if the Iraqi government didn't shape up within three months. Warner's reversal made it kosher for Republicans to distance themselves from the president's war during the midterm elections. Three months later, the senator has introduced a resolution opposing Bush's troop escalation.

Warner may not win any lifetime achievement awards from foreign policy observers, but his defiance may go down as a tipping point in the war. Lugar's stellar reputation, on the other hand, only makes the fallout from his Hamlet-like indecision about Iraq worse. Fair? No. But that's war.

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