Editor’s note: During his service in the U.S. Senate 1977-2013, Richard Lugar was highly regarded for his foreign policy expertise. In this tribute, retired diplomat Dick Combs highlights some of the reasons why.
As Senator Sam Nunn’s foreign affairs advisor in the early 1990’s I was privileged to work closely with Senator Richard Lugar and his staff on the “Nunn-Lugar program” to safeguard weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union. Our bipartisan team worked on legislative strategy and tactics and often travelled to the four newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union that inherited strategic nuclear weapons.
Senator Lugar was dedicated to advancing America’s national security interests in a pragmatic and reasoned fashion. For him, national interest prevailed over partisan interest. He was always impressive, open-minded, and a thorough gentleman. The bipartisan coalition of over eighty senators who voted for the Nunn-Lugar legislation — including Republican conservatives such as the staunch foreign assistance skeptic, Jesse Helms – was his monument.
He showed his high regard for the Foreign Service and its mission in the former Soviet Union when we visited Ukraine in March of 1992. U.S. efforts in Kiev were badly understaffed and under-resourced. On our return, Lugar and Nunn met with President G.W.H. Bush and Secretary of State Baker to urge more resources for these newly independent states, particularly to Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. This meeting was a major stimulus for the Administration-backed, 1992 “Freedom Support Act” for enhanced U.S. assistance to the former Soviet Union.
The senators’ collaboration extended into many other areas, when they had extensive off-the-record luncheon seminars on current foreign affairs in Nunn’s hideaway Senate office. Experts, including senior State Department officials and academics joined the two for frank, in-depth exploration of current issues. They also sponsored exchanges between the Congress and the new Russian parliament and co-chaired the Aspen Strategy Group, which met annually on foreign and national security policy.
They did not always hold common positions. Lugar favored NATO expansion to the East, while Nunn opposed it. So, they jointly organized a dinner discussion of the issue with leading proponents and opponents. Their differences always were tempered by their friendship and mutual respect.
In short, Senator Richard Lugar was an exceptional public servant, fully deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom he was awarded in 2013. His record of service to the United States provides a model of responsible, informed, effective leadership in foreign affairs.
Dick Combs retired from the senior foreign service in 1989, after a 23-year career specializing in Soviet and Eastern European affairs. He served as foreign affairs advisor to Senator Sam Nunn from 1989 through 1996.