Interview with Senator Lindsey Graham

Interview with Senator Lindsey Graham

By The Situation Room - September 29, 2010

BLITZER: We're back here in the SITUATION ROOM with Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. Here are five things you should know about our guest.


BLITZER (voice-over): He's a conservative with a rebellious streak. Graham is a critic of President Obama's health care reform plan, but he was the only Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee to support Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan. Graham as a reputation as a Republican willing to buck the party line.

He's been in a gang. In 2005, Graham joined an influential and bipartisan group of senators, the so-called Gang of 14 brokered a compromise that ended a bitter stalemate over President Bush's judicial nominees. He got connections. Graham has teamed up with some of the biggest names in the Senate on major legislation, including Democrats. He's especially close with fellow Republican John McCain.

GRAHAM: John McCain has lived the American dream.

BLITZER: And backed both his presidential bids. He's worn the uniform.

GRAHAM: I was stationed in Baghdad.

BLITZER: Graham is an air force reservist. And in recent years, he did brief stints in Iraq and in Afghanistan. He played a role in Obama's wars. The new Bob Woodward book portrays Graham as a central figure in creating and carrying out President Obama's Afghanistan policy.


BLITZER (on-camera): And Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is here in the SITUATION ROOM. Senator, welcome.

GRAHAM: Well, that's pretty impressive.

BLITZER: If you say so yourself.

GRAHAM: I've aged.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit about some of these issues, this poisonous atmosphere in Washington right now.


BLITZER: You've been in Washington a long time. Have you ever experienced this level of, I want to use the word hatred?

GRAHAM: Well, impeachment was close, but this is good that we leave. It's good that we get out --

BLITZER: Impeachment effort against Bill Clinton.

GRAHAM: Yes. That was very contentious obviously, but it's good that we're getting out of town and have an election and come back and say if we can move forward.

BLITZER: Do you think you can?

GRAHAM: Well, we need to. The alternative of keep doing nothing is devastating to the country. Yes, I'm an optimist. I think the new people come in to Congress on the Republican side, they're doing well mainly because the Democrats are doing poorly. Half of the people voting for Republican say they want to check the Democrats, and I think that's why we're doing well. Checks and the balances are missing, but once we get back into power or close to power, I hope we'll be constructive.

BLITZER: Bob Woodward in this new book, there's a lot written about you and the role that you've played, really, as an informal adviser to the president, to his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to General Petraeus, the U.S. military commander there, in the book, you're quoted by Biden as saying Lindsey Graham has the best instincts in the Senate. Joe Biden and Obama agreed by Bob Woodward said.

GRAHAM: Well, that's like being the tallest short person. I don't know what you get for. That's very nice. This is not Obama's war. It's America's war. And I told the president that right before he got sworn in that I would do everything I could to help him and our troops succeed in a war that we can't afford to lose. I said that then. I mean it now.

We have differences, but when it comes to national security, I would like to be seen as someone who can help the president, vice president and General Petraeus, because these young men and women deserve politicians working together for their common interests.

BLITZER: Because even from day one of the Obama administration and even before day one of the Obama administration when Biden went over there before he became vice president, he asked you to go along. Here's the question on what's going on in Afghanistan right now. Do you support the president's decision to at least begin the withdrawal process next July?

GRAHAM: I share the goal of transitioning as soon as possible, but the way he's done it, I think, has created an impediment. Announcing we're going to leave next July no matter what probably emboldens the enemy. BLITZER: He didn't say completely leave --

GRAHAM: We're going to start to leave, but that's a signal to the enemy that we're not going to stay. But here's what I think could be achieved. By next summer, I think we can transition to Afghan control in certain parts of Afghanistan and maybe bring some troops home. I think that's possible, given the progress I've seen. I wish he would back off of the idea that we're leaving in July no matter what.

But having said that, I think it's possible to transition in some areas.

BLITZER: You say it's getting better, but a lot of people think it's getting worse.

GRAHAM: There's parts. It is getting worse in some areas, but I've seen progress I've never seen before. We've got a chance to break through on corruption. We've got three cases that are pending. If they could go to trial, it would be a cultural change.

We've been clear. Holding and building requires better governance, and that means the Afghanis have to do their part, and the Pakistani government has got to help us with safe havens. It's frustrating to go to Afghanistan and know 30 kilometers across the border the Taliban are roaming around in a Pakistan village with impunity. That's got to change.

BLITZER: Woodward in the book portrays Hamid Karzai, the president, as erratic, unstable, on medication. You've met him how many times?

GRAHAM: Dozens of times.

BLITZER: When you're in meetings with Hamid Karzai does he come across as erratic to you?

GRAHAM: No. I mean, if you're not worried about what's going on in Afghanistan as president, there's something wrong with you. But I do believe he is our partner. He was elected by his people in an imperfect election, and he and General Petraeus seem to have a good bond going here, and I see progress with President Karzai in my last meeting I hadn't seen before.

So time will tell. He's got to step it up, Wolf. I mean, we've got to take the fight to the enemy. There's no ability to detain an insurgent as a national security threat in Afghanistan. We had that ability in Iraq. He's got to get all in on corruption. And he's right about Pakistan, and quite frankly, our contracting practices have undermined the Afghan government. So there are things on our side we can do to help him.

BLITZER: When you say Pakistan, is the Pakistani military intelligence service part of the solution or part of the problem?

GRAHAM: Both. They're taking casualties. They've taken the fight to the enemy in the frontier regions, but the ISI is double dealing. And part of it is they don't know if we're going to leave or stay. I think it will serve the president well to let everyone in the region know that our goal is to get it right in Afghanistan. History will judge him not by the he left, but by what he left behind.

BLITZER: Are you still talking to the president and Rahm Emanuel?

GRAHAM: Yes. Yes, I mean, why not? I mean, we've got young men and women who literally get shot at as we speak. It is inconceivable for me that the partisan politics that exist in Washington continue to affect world policy. I don't want to do in Afghanistan what we did in Iraq.

BLITZER: Well, let me switch gears briefly. Your colleague in South Carolina, Jim DeMint, he's threatening to hold up almost everything unless he clears it right now. He's getting some grief not just from Democrats, but even from some Republicans. Are you with Jim -- Jim DeMint on this?

GRAHAM: Well, he's getting a lot of support from the people out there who are tired of the status quo. Jim has brought a new energy, and he's recruited some candidates who I think will change the status quo, and all in all, I think Jim is doing a good job of getting our party back to its fiscal conservatism.

But if we do get power up here, if we do make gains, what are we going to do with it? The American people are wanting checks and balances that are missing, but our party is in poor standing with the American people. We have to improve our image, and that to me is something we haven't addressed yet.

BLITZER: Are you ready to work with the Democrats on immigration reform?

GRAHAM: Yes, I'm ready to solve the problem -- the immigration problem once and for all. Start with securing the border, and if I'm not willing to work on immigration reform? Why am I up here? Because it's a huge problem for the country. Start with border security. I'm willing to do anything that makes America stronger as long as I get something for it.

BLITZER: Lindsey Graham is the Republican senator from South Carolina, one of two Republican senators from South Carolina. Senator, thanks for coming in.

GRAHAM: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good luck to you.

GRAHAM: God bless.


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