CENTRAL, S.C. — Lindsey Graham will formally launch his bid for president in the small South Carolina town where he grew up. His White House ambitions are rooted half a world away in the Middle East.
When kicking off his campaign Monday, South Carolina’s senior senator is sure to blast President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq, insist on the need to strong-arm Iran over its nuclear program and work to subdue the violent Islamic State militants who have gained footholds in Iraq and Syria.
Yet in the early days of the 2016 campaign for president, Graham has already gone further than most of his rivals for the GOP nomination in saying how he would tackle such problems, while acknowledging the potential costs of his strategy.
Graham wants to put an additional 10,000-plus U.S. troops into Iraq, adding to the several thousand there now working as trainers and advisers only. He says it could take even more troops to stabilize the Middle East over time, adding “more American soldiers will die in Iraq and eventually in Syria to protect our homeland.”
The Islamic State militants, Graham argued at a recent campaign stop, “want to purify their religion and they want to destroy ours and blow up Israel. Every day they get stronger over there, the more likely we are to get hit over here.”
He added, “I don’t know how to defend this nation, ladies and gentlemen, with all of us sitting here at home.”
It’s a calculated risk for the 59-year-old three-term senator and retired Air Force lawyer who surprised many when he began to hint earlier this year he would run for president.
A February poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found 63 percent of adults backed some kind of military campaign against the Islamic State group, compared to 30 percent who disapprove. When asked about using ground troops, support dropped to 47 percent — with 49 percent opposed.
Further, the same survey found Americans almost evenly divided on whether military force is “the best way to defeat terrorism” or whether it “creates hatred that leads to more terrorism.”
Graham’s hawkish approach stands in stark contrast to his fellow U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, who favors less military intervention abroad. It’s also notable for its specifics, especially his warning that U.S. troops are likely to perish in the Middle East as part of his approach.
While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in a recent speech in Georgia that “we should work with our allies that want to stand against ISIS,” he’s described that role as helping with the “weapons, equipment and training” needed for a “long fight.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says he’d “take the fight to them before they take the fight to us,” but he has yet to detail what that entails. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, writing over the weekend in The Washington Post, said the U.S. should increase the number of American troops in Iraq, but unlike Graham, didn’t say how many ought to deploy.
While Graham barely registers now in national polls that will be used to determine which candidates are invited to the GOP’s presidential primary debates beginning this summer, he argues Republican voters will reward him for his blunt talk about future American casualties.
“Look, I know from polling that (national security) is the No. 1 issue in Iowa and New Hampshire” among likely GOP voters, he said. “And I’ve been more right than wrong,” he adds, noting that he was an early supporter of the troop “surge” in Iraq under President George W. Bush and was always critical of Obama’s effort to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Graham hammers Obama for not playing a more active role in establishing a functioning, democratic government in Libya after revolutionaries toppled Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. And he insists that Obama’s work to reach a nuclear accord with Iran is in vain, because the Iranians are “liars” who won’t stick to whatever inspections and restrictions make up an eventual deal.
“To the Iranians: You want a piece of a nuclear power program, you can have it,” Graham says as part of his standard campaign speech. “If you want a bomb, you’re not going to get it. If you want a war, you’re going to lose it.”
After a pause, he adds, “There’s no other way to talk in the Mideast.”