Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Richard Lugar had been handled roughly by the White House, a treatment to which the dignified Republican veteran was not accustomed. So, he was not expecting a telephone call Wednesday morning from George W. Bush. Even more unexpected was the president's tone and what he said. During a 20-minute conversation, Bush was collegial -- abandoning the confrontational posture taken earlier in the week toward Lugar and other critics of his Iraq policy. He privately told the senator Wednesday exactly what he told spokesman Ari Fleischer to tell the world: he has not decided whether to use military force against Saddam Hussein's regime. Bush signaled he wanted to work with Lugar to get a mutually acceptable war resolution. Indeed, the resolution now sure to move through the Senate this week bears little resemblance to the blank check for war demanded by the White House two weeks earlier. As a result, Lugar appears to have dropped plans to draft a more restrictive resolution in collaboration with the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden. The Senate's only alternative, then, may be a proposal by Democratic Sen. Carl Levin that goes too far in shackling presidential power even for many critics of Bush's Iraq policy. While Republicans are newly unified, the worst foreign policy split in the Democratic Party since Lyndon B. Johnson is threatened. These developments may satisfy Bush's instincts toward consensus, but are not good news for many of his advisers. Although U.S. troops may yet march through Baghdad, the quest for congressional and even United Nations sanctioning evokes a softer stand on Iraq and even opens the door for Saddam to escape military destruction. The original administration position on Iraq had no role for Congress or the U.N., no interest in weapons inspection and a de-emphasis on coalition building. It would have solidified the new doctrine of military pre-emption and hardened American dominance in the world. Bush backed away from this radical agenda, mainly at Secretary of State Colin Powell's urging. Super-hawks knew what they were doing in the days immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when they pressed for Powell's removal. When Bush decided to ask for a congressional war resolution, its authors inside the administration wanted to make it as unlike Powell as possible. The secretary of state was embarrassed during Biden's hearings two weeks ago to admit the resolution was drafted not at the State Department but in the office of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. The original resolution granted a presidential hunting license throughout the Middle East (contrasted with Powell's testimony that "deterrence" is still a "tried-and-true" U.S. policy). That led to consultations between Biden and Lugar for a new resolution and Bush's public dismissal of the efforts by Lugar, the Republican Party's foremost foreign policy spokesman over the past generation ("I don't want to get a resolution that ties my hands," said the president). Gonzales, the resolution's draftsman who lacks any foreign policy experience, was sent to Capitol Hill to negotiate with Lugar. Other senators convinced the White House that this tough-guy approach would only split Republicans and guarantee a noisome debate. The amended resolution and the president's telephone call to Lugar followed. Lugar has since told friends he has no desire to be a "dog in the manger" and probably will not offer his own resolution. Sen. Chuck Hagel, Lugar's Republican ally on the Foreign Relations Committee and a conspicuous critic of the Iraq hawks, is likely to vote for the revised version. The softened resolution has divided Democrats more bitterly than public statements indicate. Backbench peace Democrats had been suggesting privately that Rep. Richard Gephardt should quit as House party leader because of his war support. The sight of him at Bush's side in the White House Rose Garden Wednesday, endorsing the resolution, led prominent Democrats to pledge mortal combat against Gephardt's presidential ambitions. The softened stand on Iraq, most significantly, opens at least a possibility that Saddam will cooperate with U.N. inspectors enough to avert war. That's not what the hawks want, but it's what the efforts of George W. Bush, Colin Powell and Richard Lugar have made possible.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.
 

 
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