Interview with Senator Lindsey Graham

Interview with Senator Lindsey Graham

By The Situation Room - January 6, 2011

BLITZER: And joining us now from Capitol Hill, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. He is a key member of the Armed Services Committee.

Senator Graham, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, we are now learning that the Obama administration wants to deploy another 1,400 Marines to Afghanistan. Instead of reducing the number, they want to build up the U.S. troop presence.

I assume you agree this is a good idea?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Yes, I am very pleased with this idea, because it has an express purpose, to secure Afghanistan during the winter.

The Taliban don't fight very well during the winter. We do. And the extra Marines will keep the pressure on the Taliban and will advance our security plan. And it is going very well, beyond my expectations, in terms of clearing the Taliban in the south.

And these additional forces will help cement the gains. And by next summer, I hope that we will be able to bring some troops home because of progress. I expect that will happen.

BLITZER: What grade do you give President Obama when it comes to Afghanistan?

GRAHAM: I'll tell you what. Once we have cleared up 2011 and 2014, I will give him a B-plus.

The reason I believe that is that we have a very good clearing plan in place. Holding and building is going to be much more difficult. But, by focusing on 2014 as the transition date, that gives our troops and NATO forces time to develop the Afghan security forces. Sending these Marines in during the winter will keep pressure on the Taliban.

And pushing the Karzai government's on governance and pushing Pakistan to deal with the safe havens is going on at a level I haven't seen before. So I'm going to give the president and his team a B- plus. I think they're on the right track.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of U.S. analysts have totally lost faith in President Karzai of Afghanistan. They think he's going off the deep end. He's behaving erratically. Maybe he's taking medications. What do you think?

GRAHAM: Well, it sounds like our Congress. At the end of the day, President Karzai is a partner, imperfect as he is, but we had the same statements made about Prime Minister Maliki being too sectarian.

I do believe that President Karzai is encouraged by the success of the surge forces, and that he has to step up his game when it comes to fighting corruption. There are two words that will define our success in Afghanistan in 2011: Pakistan and corruption in Afghanistan. It is fair for us to put more pressure on the Pakistani army to deal with the safe havens across the border in Pakistan, and Karzai mentions that -- mentions that regularly.

It is also a fair criticism that the U.S. has used contract dollars to empower some unsavory forces in Afghanistan, so we need to change our spending ways. But I do believe that President Karzai this year is going to step up the fight against corruption, and -- which will eventually lead to better governance. I'm hopeful that he will.

BLITZER: On Sunday, you recommended that the U.S., even after 2014, maintain at least one, maybe more permanent bases in Afghanistan. Now the Taliban is going after you and saying that this lifts the curtain from the colonialist -- colonialist motives of America. They're saying you made it clear that the United States wants to occupy Afghanistan forever.

Go ahead and respond to the Taliban.

GRAHAM: Well, I don't know if the Taliban are watching, but the fact that you think it's a bad idea encourages me. Because here's what I know about Afghanistan after being there many times.

The Taliban are not well-liked by the Afghan people. There is no desire by the Afghan people; 70, 80 percent plus do not want to go back to the Taliban days. And our goal is to provide the ability of the Afghan people to chart their own destiny. To give them an army and a police force that can control the Taliban forever.

And to have an enduring relationship with the Afghan people. They know that we're not the Russians. We're not the British Empire. We're not Alexander the Great. When you go out and talk to people in Afghanistan, they don't like foreign troops, but they understand that we're different. We're there to help them secure their country, which helps secure our country.

If, after 2014, the Afghan people would like an enduring relationship politically, economically and militarily with the United States, I think we should jump at that opportunity, because it would make sure that Afghanistan becomes stable, never goes back into the terrorist camp again, and it would be reassuring to Pakistan to know that Afghanistan is a more stable country.

So a couple of air bases in Afghanistan with their permission, at their request, will always give the edge to the Afghan security forces against the Taliban and al Qaeda, and I think it would secure our long-term national security interests and be beneficial to the region. But it must come from them, and it must be something we feel is a good deal for America. To be determined yet.

BLITZER: You said on Sunday something that has raised a lot of eyebrows. As you know in coming weeks and the next few months the U.S. is going to have to raise the debt ceiling. Otherwise America's credit worthiness is going to go down the -- down the drain.

You said you'd be willing to vote to do that but only -- I'm paraphrasing now --

GRAHAM: Right.

BLITZER: -- if there's a deal in place to deal with Social Security, a deal in place to deal with Social Security, and unless we go back to the 2008 spending limits. Those are your two conditions.

GRAHAM: Right.

BLITZER: How realistic are those conditions, because you know what's involved if the U.S. credit worthiness is evaporated.

GRAHAM: Well, let me tell you what's involved if we don't lift the deaf ceiling -- debt ceiling. Excuse me. Financial collapse and calamity throughout the world. That's not lost upon me.

But we've done this 93 times. And if we keep doing the same old thing, then that is insanity to the Nth degree. We're going do have a calamity of a different fashion if we don't get our spending under control.

So what I said was the House is going to go back to 2008 spending levels. I would like to see the Senate mirror what the House does. Now, that means tightening our belt, but name somebody in America who hasn't had to tighten their belt.

Now, when it comes to entitlements like Social Security, I'm not expecting we solve that problem by March or April, but I'd like to see a serious effort, bipartisan in nature, led by the White House, where we look at extending the age of Social Security retirement. We all know we have to do that.

And when it comes to means testing benefits, that should be on the table. When I retire I'm going to have an income apart from Social Security near $100,000. I can afford to take some less from Social Security to make it solvent, and I'm willing to do that.

So I'd like to put on the table spending controls at the 2008 level, which is something we need to do, and come up with a process that will lead to some form of entitlement reform for lifting the debt ceiling. To me, that's a win-win. BLITZER: Finally, the new White House chief of staff, Bill Daley, in your opinion, a good idea?

GRAHAM: A great idea. I think he's the kind of Democrat a guy like me can do business with. He knows that what Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill did to extend the age of Social Security from 65 to 67 1/2 has to be looked at again. I think he understands the consequences of over taxation to job growth.

I think he's going to be a very good pick by the president and is someone that a guy like me can work with and other Republicans to find common ground when it comes to spending and entitlement growth. And if we don't deal with this in a bipartisan fashion, our best days are behind us, and I don't -- I don't want to think that to be true.

BLITZER: We started out with a B-plus from you on the president's Afghanistan policy wound up, I guess with an A-plus as far as Bill Daley is concerned.

GRAHAM: Yes, I think it has a lot of potential, and the plan in Afghanistan is making progress but not yet sustainable. To make it sustainable, the president is going to have to stay focused and make sure that we have enough troops and make everything condition-based and push Pakistan. But I give him credit for putting in place a plan that can work, and I think Mr. Daley can -- can help him on the domestic side.

BLITZER: Senator Graham, thanks very much.

GRAHAM: Thank you.


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