Former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., was in Austin late last month for a talk at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. Lugar, who served from 1977 until early this year after losing a primary election last year, had a distinguished career, focusing on foreign relations, agricultural issues and nuclear non-proliferation. Below is an edited version of an interview he gave the American-Statesman.
What do we do about Syria?
We continue to work with Russia and Syria, having received identification from Syria as promised of as many as 45 chemical weapons sites. The question will now be to work with the appropriate authorities and the United Nations to verify that’s a comprehensive and complete list, and think through how destruction might occur. That’s important for the United States. It’s important for Russia likewise. The Russians are conscious of the potential for al-Qaida joining the Syrian rebels. Those weapons are much closer to Russia than they are to the United States. Russia, through President (Vladimir) Putin, has indicated strong support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Some claim Russia came to the rescue, but I would argue it was in Russia’s self- interest. This is one time there was a common viewpoint that was grasped by all parties.
Should we have acted more aggressively and sooner?
No, that’s not my view. I believe the idea of acting forcefully implies some military engagement. Certainly diplomatically we have had a policy of joining the chemical weapons convention, negotiating the reduction of nuclear weapons. We have encouraged every country to proceed in that direction with considerable success. But Syria has remained one of the outliers, four or five or six countries with remaining chemical weapons. In essence we have been on the right track and have been a world leader in terms of the containment of weapons of mass destruction.
Is the Syrian situation really another manifestation of the Arab Spring?
There’s certainly evidence of contagion. Once the young man killed himself in Tunisia and apparently helped trigger a revolt there, this I think triggered more potential rebels in Libya and Egypt. The Arab Spring situation also was stimulated by almost flip remarks on the part of our government and others that Assad must go, Moammar Gadhafi of Libya must go, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt must go. There’s almost a romantic vision that the young people or those more motivated by democracy and human rights would prevail and should prevail. In Egypt, after the overthrow of Mubarak, the Egyptians did evolve into a system of what most people saw as free and fair elections.
The difficulty was, given such a rapid election schedule, the only political party of consequence that was organized was the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Muslim Brotherhood won the election. As it turned out the Muslim Brotherhood had a vision for Egypt that did not fit our vision, to say the least, and in its worst manifestation led to further revolt, which was either stimulated or capitalized on by the military, which had never gone away.
The Egyptian military is a huge part of that society and its economy. Would it serve the interests of the United States to have a strong leader there, ideology aside, who could rein in the military somewhat?
Perhaps you could say this was attempted with Mohammed Morsi as president. The Muslim Brotherhood had an electoral mandate and demonstrated how many adherents they had all over the country. There is no other alternative in Egypt. They may have been pushed by the military, but they’ve not been annihilated; they’re still there.
How’s life out of Congress? Do you miss it?
I was very grateful for 36 years of service that the citizens of Indiana accorded me and I do miss the Senate, because I was so totally involved. I think I accumulated more votes than except maybe nine other senators in history. I tried to be there for every vote and conscientiously do my duty. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee I traveled widely and stayed in touch with leaders throughout the world. I thoroughly enjoyed all the opportunities to visit the 92 counties of Indiana frequently. On the other hand, I appreciated, after I lost the primary in 2012, that I would need to adopt a whole new regimen of activities. So I’m grateful to the University of Indianapolis for setting up the Lugar Academy, in which I give a number of classes on campus. I’m on the faculty of Indiana University and paired with Lee Hamilton (an Indiana Republican who served for more than 30 years in the U.S. House), a very dear friend. And I’ve done a lot of speaking at lecture engagements, at universities or foreign relations councils and some travel abroad. That’s how I’ve been spending my time, and of course capped by visits to the LBJ School.