By Brian Howey
NASHVILLE, Ind. - Last Monday, a steel girder rose 1,271 feet above New York City and was affixed to the Freedom Tower, making it the tallest building in the metropolis. It happened on a clear, crisp day, not unlike Sept. 11, 2001 when terror pilots attacked the twin towers, each a small city in and of themselves, as is the Pentagon. On Tuesday, the news media was reporting potential "body bombs" boarding flights to the U.S. on the first anniversary of the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
There is considerable irony that the man who kept the really bad stuff - nukes, biological and chemical weapons - from reaching American soil, U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, may see his career end with Tuesday’s Republican primary. There is a tenacious challenge from Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who, to his credit, recognized the dissonance of many Hoosiers and their perceptions of the extravagance of Washington, D.C. Mourdock is riding a whirlwind of discontent to a possible upset of historic proportions. In doing so, he has taken aim at "bipartisanship," saying it is responsible for the dire state of the U.S. finances.
Anyone who reads this column with regularity knows that I view Lugar's defeat with great reticence. It comes down to one basic issue, and that is our national security, whether it's bin Laden or petrostates that play blackmail with oil and gas.
Lugar joined with Georgia Democrat U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn in 1991 to forge the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act after the implosion of the Soviet Union. I traveled with both of them to Russia in 2007. It turned out to be a tour of nightmare scenarios that Nunn-Lugar slipped back inside Pandora's Box before placing it under triple fencing, breach monitors and guard towers.
At one point, Nunn and Lugar toured the Mayak Fissile Material Storage Facility near Ozyorsk, a city that didn't even appear on Soviet maps. The Republican and Democrat ended up in a warehouse bigger than several American football fields, wearing white gowns and carrying radiation monitoring devices. Under their feet were tons of entombed plutonium from SS-24 and SS-25 missiles once aimed at American cities and part of our $6 trillion Mutually Assured Destruction strategy called the Cold war. It was there because of Nunn-Lugar funding and the pair's adroit tenacity of keeping two Russian presidential administrations and three American ones attuned to the mission and the threats. And it was not in the hands of terrorists.
Lugar and his staff faced death, literally, when in the weeks following 9/11, the Hart Senate Office Building was the target of an anthrax attack that killed five U.S. Postal Service employees. As Lugar noted in his debate with Mourdock, he was told that in 48 hours he would know whether he would survive. The trips to the former Soviet Union put Lugar face-to-face with impoverished Red Army officers, bankrupt nuclear, biological and chemical scientists, and pathogens and plutonium under flimsy padlocks.
"We were always building bridges," Nunn told me.
For Lugar, it was the execution of a "concept through which we as leaders who are responsible for the welfare of our children attempt to take control of a global threat of our own making."
On the trip to Russia, I traveled with Kenneth A. Myers III, who now directs the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. “Every time we’ve called Sen. Lugar to help us, to help us break into a new region, to establish the first step, to establish relations with leaders, he’s always said yes,” Myers explained at Indiana University last November.
What if Lugar is defeated, or dies? Is there anyone to pick up the mantle in Congress? There is no clear answer.
"This really is about personal diplomacy," Myers explained. "To succeed, we need the people in the field who go to work every day, but we need the leaders who go out and establish the relationships. When you are able to walk through a door trailing Sen. Lugar you have an entry that is second to none. Without this kind of leadership, we will not be able to have this kind of luck. I cannot prove a negative to you. So far we’ve been perfect. But we always have to be perfect. We were lucky in 1991 that we had the senator to develop the tools and gave us the flexibility to adjust.”
Or as Kenneth B. Handelman of the Pentagon told me when I asked whether we had dodged a bullet, "We don't know what we don't know." Handelman repeated the question, and then explained, "Yeah, anytime we take something off the market, it's money well spent. But we've got to go where we aren't now."
When I bring up Lugar and WMD, or the fact that hundreds of MANPADS (shoulder-launched, surface to air missiles) are unaccounted for in liberated Libya, some Hoosier Republicans roll their eyes. They talk about how North Korean is a greater threat. It's the type of complacency that occurs when 11 years after the twin towers collapse, the wolves have been kept at bay.
Reelecting Sen. Lugar is no guarantee terror won't strike again. But I like our chances better with him on the watch. If he doesn’t return, someone needs to pick up the mantle.