Say what you will about Sen. Lindsey Graham’s maximalist, uber-hawkish foreign policy views, but the man deserves some credit for not sugarcoating their consequences.
Military leaders may be talking about the possibility of a limited “bloody nose” strike against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but Graham believes that military action should be taken only as a “last resort” to prevent Kim Jong-un from acquiring nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles and that the administration should be prepared for grave consequences.
“I don’t think you can surgically strike North Korea. They have a lot of capabilities directed at South Korea, Japan, and other countries in the region. Thousands of people could be killed,” Graham said in an appearance at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday morning. “The way you protect the homeland is to put millions of people at risk. That is a very bad spot to find yourself.”
Similarly, despite the effective destruction of ISIS’s “caliphate,” Graham was in no mood to declare victory. “If [Trump] wants to make sure ISIL or al-Qaida doesn’t come back, he needs to be willing to leave at least 10,000 troops behind,” he said of Iraq. As for Syria, he argued that “Sunni extremism is the biggest winner of a policy that leaves [President Bashar al-]Assad in power.”
There are a lot of reasons why Graham was never going to be president, but his habit of clear-eyed talk about such consequences is one of the biggest. He certainly wasn’t the only Republican who called Obama weak on terrorism. They all did that. But while most shied away from discussions of ground troops or long-term U.S. commitments in the Middle East, preferring to focus on keeping out refugees or Obama’s failure to use the phrase radical Islamic terrorism, Graham had something grander in mind. During his campaign, he called for 20,000 U.S. troops for Iraq and Syria, the forced removal of Assad, and a commitment to rebuilding Syria that he said would make the war in Iraq “look like a walk in the park.”
After 15 years of war, it was not a popular message. Despite being one of the country’s most high-profile senators, Graham didn’t even poll high enough to appear on the main stage during the GOP primary debates. And to his evident horror, voters instead chose Donald Trump, a candidate who seemed deeply uninformed about the foreign policy issues Graham was monomaniacally focused on. Trump criticized fellow Republicans for supporting wars in the Middle East, expressed deeply bigoted views about refugees and immigrants, and suggested that Assad and Vladimir Putin could be valuable allies against ISIS.
But a funny thing has happened since then. Trump’s foreign policy has looked a lot more like Graham’s than one might have expected a year ago. Trump has increased the number of troops in Afghanistan, against his own instincts, and deployed at least 2,000 troops to Syria. Those already stationed in Iraq don’t seem likely to come home any time soon. He has loosened the rules of engagement for U.S. troops fighting ISIS. He launched an airstrike against Assad to punish his use of chemical weapons. He has taken steps to undermine the Iran nuclear deal and may yet pull the U.S. out of it completely. He has threatened the use of military force against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. He has fully backed Israel and Saudi Arabia.
And while it may have more to do with the ongoing investigation than a genuine change of heart, Trump hasn’t given many concessions to Vladimir Putin. Just last month, the administration slapped sanctions on several Putin cronies and agreed to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine.
When moderator Marc Thiessen asked Graham on Wednesday how he was feeling about U.S. national security a year into the Trump administration, he replied, “Great! Compared to a year ago, I’m the happiest guy in town. … Across the board. I think he’s doing a great job.”
But while Graham loves the messages coming out of the Trump administration, particularly its insistence that North Korea be denied nuclear weapons, he emphasizes that the follow-through is critical. “If you say denial, you better mean it, because if you don’t, the Iranians are going to go nuclear. Every terrorist group in the world is going to say, he’s all talk, he’s no different than Obama.”
Considering the stakes, Graham’s conspicuously chummy relationship and frequent golf outings with a president he once deemed a “bigot” and a “jackass” make a lot of sense. There has been buzz about Graham as a potential secretary of state once Rex Tillerson finally shuffles off back to Texas. (This would create the intriguing scenario of America being represented before the world by, not one, but two rabidly pro-Israel, Christian South Carolinians.) It’s possible the senator has that job in mind, but even if he doesn’t win that nomination, Graham is still getting a remarkable amount of what he wants out of this administration. If the price for that success is hanging out with Trump and defending his more unhinged statements, it’s a transaction Graham seems eager to make.
Graham’s support is not without its limits. In a negotiating session on immigration on Tuesday, Trump appeared open to a deal not only on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals but on comprehensive immigration reform, which Graham has long advocated, only to reverse course several hours later. Then in another meeting on Thursday, at which Graham was present, the shit hit the fan.
“Tuesday Trump—I like that guy. Come back, wherever you went,” Graham said at AEI on Wednesday. “He commands the room. He’s funny. He’s engaging. He’s the guy that I like playing golf with.”
By contrast, Graham, who reportedly admonished Trump for his racist “shithole” remark during the meeting, blamed the president’s performance on “not very good staff work.”
Staff failures have lately become Graham’s go-to excuse when the president does something indefensible. In the senator’s world, this includes not only being embarrassingly uninformed about his own positions and making blatantly racist comments but also not being tough enough on terrorist detainees. Graham was furious when Trump followed the Obama precedent of bringing charges against the Uzbek gunman who killed eight people in New York in November. But again, he suggested Wednesday, this wasn’t Trump’s fault.
“When it comes to detention policy and interrogation policy, it’s a staff problem. I don’t think president Trump really likes saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Terrorist, would you like the right to remain silent.’ ”
Graham is also frustrated with the administration’s decision to cut funding to the State Department and development aid, both of which Graham describes as necessary tools for countering radicalism. “The biggest threat to radical Islam is build a small schoolhouse where a young girl can get an education,” he said. He vowed to continue blocking cuts to the State Department. (This might be one area where Graham would be a step up over Tillerson at State. He at least seems to believe in the department’s mission.)
So, no, the Trump administration hasn’t fully bought into the Graham doctrine, but judging by his comments, he seems to believe he can get the president there. “This is why I play golf [with him,]” Graham said. “President Trump has really got a lot of hard decisions to make.”
For a politician who’s normally pretty clear-eyed and honest about the risks of dangerous national security gambles, his faith that this president will make the right calls if only he gets the right advice seems uncharacteristically naïve.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus