Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who served six terms in the U.S. Senate and led its Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview airing this weekend on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” that President Barack Obama made a mistake by drawing a so-called red line over Syrian chemical-weapons use.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: Welcome back. We’re joined now by the former senator from Indiana and Foreign Relations Committee chair, Richard Lugar. Senator, thank you so much for being with us.
RICHARD LUGAR: Thank you, Al. Thank you.
HUNT: President Obama said he was drawing a red line on Assad using chemical weapons in Syria. If it’s conclusive that he did, would the United States lose credibility in places like North Korea and Iran if we don’t retaliate in a strong way?
LUGAR: There’s a possibility we might lose some credibility, but at the same time, the difficulty of the president drawing red lines, because of the chemical-weapons situation, it’s difficult to prove whether there were weapons, who used them, for what purpose, how severe was the prospect -
HUNT: So it was a mistake to draw that red line?
LUGAR: Yeah, I think so. And for the president’s opponents, it offers a very good opportunity, once again, to say, well, he just isn’t strong enough and doesn’t have the will and so forth.
HUNT: Let’s talk about some actions we could take in Syria, supplying lethal weapons to the insurgents.
LUGAR: Well, let me just start by saying that the New York Times-CBS latest poll - and this is three days ago - said that 62 percent of the American public believes we should not be involved in Syria at all. Another 56 percent say not in North Korea. That’s a pretty good chunk of the American public.
HUNT: Do you think they’re right about Syria?
LUGAR: I think probably they are. But at the same time, the United States understanding the needs of our allies, as well as our own humanitarian interests, has been at a nonlethal work involving some food and masks and this type of thing. The problem with the lethal situation, as General Dempsey and others pointed out in congressional hearings, is that somebody may take the weapons away from whoever you give them to, or you may make a mistake in terms of whom you give them to, to begin with -
HUNT: Could be the wrong guys. We learned that in Afghanistan, didn’t we? Yeah.
LUGAR: Yeah. And in Libya, we’re still tracing and trying to find everything that was sent over there in that situation, which was much less complex.
HUNT: How about using air power? How about taking a no-fly zone, taking out the Syrian air force, bombing Assad’s palace?
LUGAR: Well, that really does get into warfare, because he does have some pretty good aircraft and air defenses. And it’s all well and good to talk about the no-fly zone, but that really does put American people at risk who are flying the planes, as well as the planes themselves, and that really oversteps the line. In other words, if we’re not going to get even into so-called nonlethal or barely lethal, the thought of a no-fly zone, seems to me, is not in the cards.
LUGAR: Beyond that, you’ve got the fact that Brahimi, the U.N. representative, now is indicating he would like to resign and simply take the U.N. out of this business of attempting to mediate or conciliate or define who the good guys are or what have you. If that’s the case, there really are no observers that can be helpful in determining who is really going over the lines in Syria, to something that is going to be very, very hostile to us.
HUNT: Let me switch across continents to China. President Xi’s much more aggressive rhetoric and claims, for territorial claims over there, does that worry you? Is there a danger of any kind of armed conflict in Asia?
LUGAR: I don’t think armed conflict, but clearly the new president is indicating a more aggressive posture, but we knew that was coming along. At the same time that the president’s policy and that of the Congress, I think, has been to pivot toward Asia, the idea of pivoting was that we would have seapower out there. I was aboard the USS George Washington in Manila harbor in October, and they’ve been out at sea for six months. Everybody in Asia knows they’re out there, a lot of other aircraft carriers.
Now, I would just say simply that we are cognizant of this. We’re cognizant of a new president in South Korea, a lady who is going to be more aggressive, of a new prime minister in Japan, Abe, who likewise, with the Senkaku Islands and China, is much more aggressive.
The Indonesians are very happy that we’ve been out there with the George Washington or other follow-up craft as they’ve gone, because we are taking an interest and we’re a presence and we’re the presence. We still have the armed forces - when push comes to shove, whether it be with the North Koreans or even, heaven help us, with the Chinese, if there was really aggression, I think everybody knows that.
HUNT: You mentioned North Korea. If they conduct another nuclear missile test, as some people think is very likely, what should the administration’s response be?
LUGAR: Well, I’m not going to prescribe a response on our part. I think our planners have something in mind, and I would say that they should. We’ve demonstrated already that we have the airpower in the area, as well as the seapower, to make life very difficult for the new North Korean leader and his followers, for that matter. So as interesting that as the war games in which the United States and South Korea have been participating now have tapered off, so has some of the rhetoric.
Now, the most recent event now, of course, is the captivity of an American citizen, a North - or, rather, a Korean-American who was involved in the tourism business in North Korea. That’s certainly a rather interesting, dangerous business, I would say, but nevertheless, this may be a new attempt by the North Koreans to engage us in some way. But at the same time, most American leaders are saying, well, we’re not going to send another ex-president over there. That’s been often the response.
I agree with John Kerry, our new secretary of state, that we really have to keep the door open. I’m not one that’s suggesting we shouldn’t be thinking about talks with the North Koreans, but I think that’s going to come about. But for the moment, thanks to at least the end of these war games over there, maybe things have backed off for the moment.
HUNT: One political question. Your party suffered major rejections in last November’s elections. Looking at this Congress - we’ve now had four months - do you think the Republicans have learned anything from their experience?
LUGAR: Well, Republicans covers a lot of territory.
HUNT: It does.
LUGAR: In other words, you could analyze the problems that Speaker Boehner has in the House of Representatives. Many people do every day. And they would say there’s a hardcore group, there’s 120 or however many, who say, really, our job is not to legislate, it’s not really to get into the budget. We came to curtail government, smaller government, smaller spending, smaller deficits. In other words, we are minions of the people to do a job. So people say, well, let’s have regular order. Let’s have hearings, for example. Well, that’s not what Boehner’s half wants. And then if you have the Hastert rule that you don’t move something unless a majority of your caucus is in favor of it, you’re stopped.
HUNT: So the House is paralyzed then?
LUGAR: Yeah, I think they are. And that’s too bad, because there are a lot of big issues out there, leaving aside foreign policy.
HUNT: Well, that’s because Dick Lugar isn’t heading the Foreign Relations Committee anymore.
Senator, thank you so much for being with us.
LUGAR: Thank you, Al.
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