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Associated Press
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., right, former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., center, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta listen to President Obama at Monday’s Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction symposium at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

Lugar’s global legacy

Sen. Richard Lugar will probably be the subject of more praise and honors as his distinguished 36-year career in the U.S. Senate winds down over the coming days. But Monday’s feting by President Obama had all the marks of Lugar’s valedictory Washington appearance.

The Pentagon awarded Lugar and former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia its highest civilian honor, the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service. The ceremony coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar Act, also called the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which has resulted in the deactivation of more than 7,000 nuclear warheads along with biological and chemical weapons. The forward-thinking senators created the program soon after the Soviet Union dissolved, recognizing the increased vulnerability of nuclear weapons in Russia and even less stable former Soviet states.

The act provided money to, among other steps, deactivate nuclear warheads, dismantle nuclear submarines, install high-tech security equipment in nuclear storage sites and reinforce rail cars to move the former weapons.

Both Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised the senators for their work, which may have prevented a nuclear warhead from falling into the hands of terrorists. Obama called Nunn-Lugar “one of the country’s smartest and most successful national security programs.”

Panetta said, “We can say that the course of history changed for the better because these two men helped the nation confront the threat of nuclear proliferation at the end of the Cold War. … The world would have been, without question, a far more dangerous and threatening place were it not for these two patriots.”

True to form, Lugar accepted the award graciously while continuing to push for more progress. Nunn-Lugar expires next spring, and Lugar issued a statement that – diplomatically but forcefully – called for both Russia and the Obama administration to work harder to develop a new agreement.

“We must not allow traditional Russian intransigence and current American fiscal fears in the short term to close our longer-term window of opportunity,” Lugar wrote. “ ‘New political realities,’ so often voiced by critics in both capitals, have been slowly suffocating the bilateral arms-control process. … Even if the Nunn-Lugar CTR program persists in a somewhat different guise, it will take real statesmanship and political courage to overcome the ‘new’ political realities in both capitals that are beginning to resemble the old ones from the Cold War.”

Sadly, Lugar lost the Republican primary at least partly because of the more insular tendencies of his opponent’s tea party supporters. Today, Washington is consumed by debate over the government’s fiscal situation and pending fiscal cliff.

Lugar – perhaps for the last time as a U.S. senator – on Monday once again reminded the nation that we need leaders who also focus on keeping the world safer, who understand the complexities that could again make Russia a dangerous enemy, and who realize that protecting armed nuclear missiles kept by rogue and disorganized governments must remain a major objective.