Senator's Turnaround on Iraq Marks Watershed

The White House is asking lawmakers to be more patient when it comes to the troop surge in Iraq. Yesterday, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar called for a reduction in the U.S. military's role there — and other Senators are agreeing.

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Many speeches get made on the floor of the U.S. Senate and most are quickly forgotten. But a 45-minute speech that Indiana Republican Richard Lugar gave at the end of last night's session was still reverberating today. Lugar is the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. And on Iraq, he has been a vote that White House could count on. But now, Lugar says the troop surge is not working, and it's time to start drawing down U.S. forces.

As NPR's David Welna reports, his turnabout is being called a watershed of the war.

DAVID WELNA: Until last night, Senator Lugar had said little publicly about what he says are concerns over Iraq that he expressed privately to the White House as long ago as January. But in a speech given after most other senators had gone home, Lugar said it was time to start bringing U.S. troops home.

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): The president and his team must come to grips with the shortened political timetable in this country for military operations in Iraq. And some will argue that political timelines should always be subordinated through military necessity, but that is unrealistic in a democracy.

WELNA: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today applauded Lugar for, as Reid put it, breaking with the pack and publicly criticizing the president's Iraq policies.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): I'm confident that his speech last night on the Senate floor will allow us to more quickly change the mission in Iraq and get our troops home. It was a courageous thing that he did.

WELNA: The praise for Lugar also came from his own side of the aisle. Virginia Republican John Warner, who's one of his party's most respected voices on military policy said, Lugar expressed many of his own concerns about Iraq.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): I hailed what he did. I think he did a wonderful job, and it shows the strength that individually, each of us, must bring to this debate.

WELNA: Other Republicans who until now have said little about the war were saying much more today. Ohio's George Voinovich said Lugar's speech expressed a sentiment that it's time for a change in Iraq.

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): I think it's widely shared with my colleagues. I believe that in their hearts, many of them feel that, you know, everybody has been trying to be supportive of our president and I have the greatest respect for him.

WELNA: But Voinovich went on to say he wrote to the White House today with his own plan for getting out of Iraq. He calls it plan E - ebbing for exit. Maine Republican Susan Collins, who faces a tough reelection bid next year, said she, too, has doubts about the troop escalation strategy led by General David Petraeus.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): Based from what I've seen so far, there are some glimmers of hope. But, overall, it seems to be one step forward and two back.

WELNA: Even some of President Bush's most reliable supporters today said time is running out. This is North Carolina Republican Richard Burr.

Senator RICHARD BURR (Republican, North Carolina): I think September is absolutely the endpoint of decision. Whether, in fact, individuals will come to a conclusion before then, I think it's likely.

WELNA: But other Republicans expressed dismay over Lugar's dour outlook on Iraq. Here's South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Well, as much as I respect Senator Lugar, I think it's unfair to the troops in the field to say the surge is not working because the troops literally have just arrived. And if the definition of not working is that the enemy still fights, then you'll never have success.

WELNA: Lugar, for his part, says he's still not sure how he'll push for a change in Iraq.

Sen. LUGAR: We have talked about specific dates of withdrawal, but I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about the administration coming forward, planning for a safe withdrawal of our forces, a repositioning, a diplomacy that is lasting.

WELNA: The White House today said it would take Lugar's criticisms seriously. Lugar said White House officials called him after his speech and said they wish to speak with him further about it.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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