Lee Hamilton and Richard Lugar were foreign policy leaders during their decades in Congress. Neither gave up his passion – nor his voice – after leaving Capitol Hill.
The alleged use of sarin gas by Syria’s government against its citizens – and President Barack Obama’s threat of U.S. military retaliation – have had Hamilton and Lugar talking and writing a lot lately.
In a newspaper commentary and an interview, Hamilton last week renewed his call for legislation requiring a president to consult with Congress before deploying armed forces.
And Lugar has been sought by national media for his views on international efforts to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.
Is anybody listening? Sen. Barbara Boxer was. During floor debate last week on a resolution that would authorize Obama to launch airstrikes against Syrian targets, Boxer, D-Calif., cited comments Lugar had made about the Syrian civil war.
On Sept. 3, Lugar told the Washington Post that the prospect of terrorists obtaining chemical and biological weapons might be “the greatest threat to the United States” and that Syria’s deployment of them “must be met with action.”
“Dick Lugar, who played such a great role in securing nuclear weapons after the Cold War,” Boxer said during a speech televised by C-SPAN. “Dick Lugar, who understands what could happen if we turn our back now.”
Whether other lawmakers heed the advice of Lugar and Hamilton is another matter. Hamilton was a member of a commission that in 2008 recommended Congress create a process by which the executive and legislative branches would consult on possible military actions. But no such bill has been passed.
“They make up their own minds,” Hamilton said Friday about Congress during a visit to The Journal Gazette. “I have a number of friends there. I write something, some people pay attention to it, and some people don’t.
“You just have to speak up when you think you have something worthy to say,” he said.
Ahead of pack
Hamilton, 82, a Democrat from Columbus, was in the House from 1965 through 1998 and at various points was chairman of its Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees.
Lugar, 81, a Republican from Indianapolis, was in the Senate from 1977 through 2012 and twice chaired its Foreign Relations Committee.
Hamilton directs Indiana University’s Center on Congress. He and Lugar have been named to the faculty of IU’s new School of Global and International Studies. Lugar also teaches at the University of Indianapolis and Georgetown University and heads The Lugar Center, a nonprofit think tank on global issues.
Lugar seemingly was way ahead of the diplomatic pack on Syria before he departed the Senate early this year after losing in last year’s Indiana Republican primary election. Mark Helmke, a former aide to Lugar who teaches strategic communications at Trine University in Angola, referred The Journal Gazette to a New York Times article on Lugar’s visit to Moscow in August 2012. Lugar at the time urged Syria ally Russia to join with the U.S. in an attempt to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons after President Bashar Assad had threatened to use them. A year later, Assad’s forces allegedly gassed to death more than 1,400 Syrians, and Russia and the U.S. are negotiating for Assad to surrender his chemical arsenal.
Lugar had told Times reporter David Herszenhorn that most nations considered Syria’s chemical weapons “as influencing very adversely the potential for peace and stability in the Middle East.”
Hamilton said negotiators should push for a cease fire in the Syrian civil war after Assad’s chemical weapons have been verified, secured and destroyed. He hopes that the congressional debate over possible U.S. military involvement will prompt lawmakers to rewrite the War Powers Resolution of 1973.
“I very much support the idea that the decision to intervene militarily should be made both by the president and by the Congress,” he said. “Historically, the Congress has deferred to the president, stood back, let him make the decision on do you intervene or not, and kind of snipe at him from the sidelines.
“The decision to intervene militarily is the most important and the gravest decision that a government makes. And I think we are better off as a country if that’s a shared responsibility,” he said.
Hamilton was a member of the National War Powers Commission, a bipartisan panel formed in 2007 by the University of Virginia and co-chaired by former Secretaries of State James Baker, a Republican, and Warren Christopher, a Democrat.
The following year, the commission recommended that the War Powers Resolution be replaced by a permanent committee of Senate and House members with whom a president must consult before ordering the use of combat forces. The panel also urged that the full Congress vote on potential military action within 30 days, with the president enjoying veto power.
“You put into place a mechanism that makes ’em consult, that makes ’em meet with one another on a regular basis,” Hamilton said. “You cannot force bipartisanship, you cannot force a solution, but you can enhance the possibility that you get a unified effort. The premise of all of this is that the president and the Congress working together produces a stronger foreign policy, a more respected foreign policy abroad.”
At least two bills have been filed this year in the House that would require the president and Congress to consult before U.S. military force can be deployed, including one introduced Wednesday by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. DeFazio has offered similar legislation on at least four other occasions since 1993.
Why hasn’t Congress acted?
“Everybody says it’s a good idea,” Hamilton said, “but it’s not exactly on the top burner for most people, and things that aren’t on the top burner frequently don’t get much attention.”
“I hope as a result of Syria people will look back and say, ‘We can do better than this in the way we handle these kinds of crises.’ ”