WASHINGTON -- The defeat on Iraq aid that the Senate handed President Bush Thursday night, when normally dependable supporters defected, was presaged four days earlier when the respected Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called on George W. Bush to act more like a president. Sen. Richard Lugar's comments, unexpected in their bluntness, conveyed a major political message. Members of the president's party are really worried about the war.
Lugar's stance on NBC's "Meet the Press" was the exception among Republicans in openly implying President Bush is not in control. Nevertheless, GOP senators returned from the weeklong Columbus Day recess reporting discontent by constituents. Defections by congressional Republicans in supporting loans to Iraq reflected deep unease.
That unease goes to the difficulty of waging a global war against terror. While reconstructing a democratic Iraq is laudable, not only Democrats question whether investment of blood and treasure in Iraq is directly related to that war. Hints by a prominent Pentagon adviser that Syria could be the next target for an overextended military seems even further removed from directly assaulting terror.
Dick Lugar, an elder Republican statesman who usually minds his words, was the talk of Washington after his performance on "Meet the Press" Oct. 12. As his Democratic counterpart on Foreign Relations, Sen. Joseph Biden, delivered partisan slashes, Lugar offered no criticism. When Biden commanded Bush to "take charge," moderator Tim Russert asked whether that was good and necessary advice. "Yes it is," said Lugar. "It's very necessary."
Republican insiders have been talking all week about what came next from Lugar: "I concur with my colleague. The president has to be president. That means the president over the vice president and over these secretaries (of State and Defense)." Lugar had just had enough of the administration's divided voices, especially Dick Cheney's, which he called "very, very tough and strident."
Other senior senators share Lugar's concern. Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is reported by colleagues to be unhappy (though it is unlikely he ever would go public). Many GOP lawmakers who do not share Lugar's opinions have their own concerns.
Freshman Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has no doubt Bush is in charge. He knows from personal experience because the president tried to dissuade him from supporting a proposal to loan Iraq half of $20 billion in reconstruction money. Graham never was intimidated by party leaders during eight years in the House and has not changed in the Senate. He feels there is nothing the American people should feel ashamed about in lending some money to oil-rich Iraq.
Sen. Sam Brownback, a conservative Bush loyalist from Kansas, also affirms the president is in control. But at town hall meetings during the recess, he felt the public's alarm over casualties in Iraq. Like Graham, he defied the president as the Senate voted 51 to 47 (with Lugar and Biden both backing Bush in this instance).
Irritation with the president's intractable opposition to loans spread to his strongest supporters in the House and probably reflects Iraqi war weariness. Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee, a leading advocate of loans, was called (as his colleagues put it) "down to the principal's office" at the White House to be lectured. That turned Wamp around. However, other conservative Republicans -- led by Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana and Dana Rohrabacher of California -- not only supported loans but actively rounded up votes against the White House.
Concern by Republican constituents over American soldiers being picked off one by one suggests deep-seated hostility to new battlefields. A new combat area was suggested in a little noticed Associated Press interview in Jerusalem last weekend with Richard Perle, a Defense Policy Board member and close adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "We have problems with the Syrians who continue to support terrorism," said Perle, adding ominously, "Syria is militarily very weak."
That's what Perle was saying about Iraq two years ago, and he was exactly right in conventional terms. It is postwar worries that haunt Dick Lugar and other thoughtful Republicans, who do not relish Syria as yet another fighting front in the war against terrorism.