Graham: Obama Won't Act on ISIS Unless U.S. Attacked
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading foreign policy hawk and an underdog candidate for president, has long been among the most vocal Republicans calling for a more muscular military strategy to defeat the Islamic State — and, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, Graham is growing more emphatic.
“I don’t think [President] Obama is going to do anything unless there’s another attack on our homeland,” Graham told RealClearPolitics in an interview Tuesday.
At a press conference this week in Turkey, Obama defended his current anti-ISIS strategy, which relies heavily on airstrikes, and he answered critics pushing for more extreme measures.
"We have the right strategy and we're going to see it through," Obama said.
Underlying the president’s argument is a fundamental political fault line: Many Democrats, including the presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, along with some Republicans, have insisted the fight is not primarily America’s to shoulder. During Saturday’s primary debate in Des Moines, Clinton underscored her commitment to taking on the Islamic State but asserted that the U.S. must rally other countries to that cause. She did not, however, offer a specific strategy, nor did she suggest the U.S. should be doing more.
“Hillary Clinton needs to come up with a plan,” Graham said.
For the South Carolina senator, one of the most outspoken hawks in the Republican presidential field, the Paris attacks have afforded an opportunity: to re-establish his authority on foreign policy and national security issues, and to re-enter the GOP primary conversation after being excluded from the most recent undercard debate due to low national polling.
The plan Graham has outlined to confront ISIS would center on “a large regional army” comprised of troops from Middle Eastern countries and supplemented by European and American forces. After neutralizing ISIS, Graham’s plan would have the army turn its attention to removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
“Without a ground component, I don’t see how this works,” Graham said.
As the president this week reaffirmed his opposition to ground troops in the region, Republican presidential candidates have begun to coalesce around a more robust military response, although not all support an on-the-ground component. Some, such as Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina, have stopped short, instead proposing that the U.S. arm the Kurds. Graham remains the most hawkish, and he is one of the few Republicans calling for boots on the ground in both Iraq and Syria.
“They’re moving my way,” Graham said of his Republican peers, “but most are just parroting, ‘boots on the ground.’”
In a speech Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, Ohio Gov. John Kasich called for a coalition army, similar to Graham’s plan. But he also pushed a more novel idea: a government agency established to win a “battle of ideas” in Russia, China and the Middle East by broadcasting “Judeo-Christian values.”
"U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting have lost their focus on the case for Western values and ideals and effectively countering our opponents' propaganda and disinformation,” Kasich said. “I will consolidate them into a new agency that has a clear mandate to promote the core, Judeo-Christian Western values that we and our friends and allies share."
Kasich compared his idea to U.S. efforts to broadcast news and information behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
But the idea doesn’t sit well with Graham, who said the focus should instead be on “fighting radical Islam.”
“I don’t think we should be promoting Judeo-Christian values in the Arab world,” Graham said. “I think that was the Crusades.”
“John Kasich is trying to do a good thing, but you’ve got to watch your words in this business,” Graham added. “Our enemies can take our words and use them against us.”
Nor is Graham mincing his own words in response to other divergent Republican plans to fight ISIS, including that pushed by Donald Trump.
“I think it would be a mistake to go into Iraq and Syria and take the oil. I think it would be a mistake to let Russia fight ISIL,” Graham said, invoking some of Trump’s proposals. “Ben Carson’s had some ‘good’ ones, too. There’s plenty to go around.”
The threat posed by terrorism and unrest in the Middle East has been central to Graham’s underdog candidacy from the beginning. At his campaign kickoff in June, he told a hometown crowd in Central, S.C., that he would run for president “to protect our nation ... from all threats foreign and domestic” and to “to defeat the enemies trying to kill us.”
In light of the terror attacks in Paris, then, Graham is not necessarily making a political calculation in avidly discussing his proposed response. But, he said, his message now “means more to the average American than it did before Paris.”
“It put a face on what I’ve been saying,” Graham said. “When it comes to national security, experience and judgment matters. You don’t want to replace one novice with another.”