Martin Schram - In praise of Sen. Lugar's mission

Martin Schram Scripps Howardwriter Published:

Two weeks before President Barack Obama issued this week's now-famous war-talk warning that any Syrian effort to move or deploy its chemical weapons would be a "red line for us" -- presumably a threat of military intervention -- the U.S. Senate's most respected diplomat-without-portfolio arrived in Moscow hoping to head off just such a crisis.

Sen. Richard Lugar was on a Lone Ranger mission to Moscow. And it may be his last one.

The 80-year-old Indiana Republican -- respected by a world of leaders for his partnership with former Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia in their historic Nunn-Lugar program that secured thousands of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands -- was defeated last May by a tea party movement-backed policy novice who is simply unworthy of the office he now may win.

Lugar didn't come to Moscow carrying any message from Obama, whom he'd mentored in the art and craft of safeguarding weapons of mass destruction, after his newly elected neighbor from Illinois sought his guidance upon winning his Senate seat in 2004. Nor did Lugar return to Washington this week with any encouraging words, let alone promises, from Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Yet someday, perhaps soon, we may look back at Lugar's one-man mission to Moscow as the turning point that safeguarded the world from Syria's chemical weapons, before they could be used in Syria's civil war against rebel soldiers or innocent civilians.

Lugar went to Moscow as a man with a plan. In an interview Tuesday, Lugar outlined the idea he presented to senior officials in Russia's foreign and defense ministries:

"The two superpowers, Russia and the United States, ought to jointly take the initiative by destroying the chemical weapons now in Syria," Lugar said. Lugar was suggesting another reset -- a return to the era when the two superpowers destroyed thousands of aged weapons of mass destruction under the Nunn-Lugar program.

"At some point in the present situation in Syria, there is a strong potential that at least some of those chemical weapons in Syria could be siphoned off -- and they are, after all, close to Russia's backyard."

Lugar was referring, of course, to the potential that, in the uncertainty of Syria's civil war, at least some of those weapons, which Russia originally supplied to Syria, could wind up in the hands of Muslim militants, al-Qaida allies or Hezbollah. That would be a dire threat not only for Israel, the United States and the West, but also potentially for Russian troops and citizens in Russia's Chechnya republic.

Make no mistake: Lugar encountered skepticism from Russian officials in both ministries. Some noted that Syria never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention; also, Syria now owned those chemical weapons. "I said, yes, they were owned by Syria for now," Lugar said. "But I said we didn't know who will have them later. And we ought to be discussing this now and not in the middle of a crisis."

On Monday, Obama held an impromptu news conference. In one mind-bogglingly convoluted question, a journalist asked about both Mitt Romney's income taxes and Syria's chemical weapons. To which Obama ultimately replied:

"We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

Obama's answer raised many worthy follow-up concerns: Does his mention of a "red line" mean he'd order a military strike? Since U.S. intelligence famously missed Saddam Hussein's movement of Iraqi chemical weapons, and U.S. intelligence resources in Syria may be even more limited, is he sure the U.S. is capable of "seeing" Syrian chemical weapons being moved? Unfortunately, my colleagues in Washington's most nominally elite beat didn't follow up.

So far, Lugar has received no official support or rejection of his idea from Putin's government half a world away, or Obama's, just 16 blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue.

"But at least one deputy minister in Moscow thought we could be onto something," Lugar said. "He seemed to like the concept of the two great powers working together."

That's a start.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. Email him at

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