Lindsey Graham, the senior U.S. senator from South Carolina, is sometimes characterized as a Republican "maverick" for his bipartisan forays on domestic policy. However, Graham is a staunch foreign policy hawk who promotes U.S. military intervention across the Greater Middle East and often makes fear-mongering claims regarding purported threats to the United States.
Graham briefly ran as a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. In announcing his candidacy in June 2015, Graham employed characteristically hyperbolic rhetoric, declaring that "the world is exploding in terror and violence." He said that he wanted "to be president to defeat the enemies that are trying to kill us. Not just penalize them or criticize them or contain them, but defeat them." A CNN commentator called Graham's announcement speech an "apocalyptic vision."
Shortly after he withdrew from the race in December 2015, Graham endorsed Jeb Bush as the GOP presidential nominee, stating that Bush is "ready to be a commander-in-chief on Day One." In his statement endorsing Bush, Graham also criticized Republican front-runner Donald Trump. "He's saying things that make no sense," Graham proclaimed.
A History of Hyperbole
Graham stands out even among foreign policy hawks in Congress for his overstated and often wild comments regarding U.S. security and global affairs. A case in point were the comments he made after President Barack Obama delivered his 2014 state of the union address, during which the president re-iterated his opposition to imposing new sanctions on Iran during negotiations. Responding to the address, Graham said: "The world as I know was not remotely described by the president." He added: "The world is literally about to blow up."
Earlier, in 2013, he took issue with Obama's stated desire to end the "war on terror," arguing that the "Middle East is going to blow up."
Graham also employed hyperbolic language to characterize alleged threats from the "Islamic State" group in Iraq and Syria in 2014. In an August 2014 interview with Fox News, he stated, "This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home."
Quipped Simon Maloy of Salon: "Here we are once again, with another existential threat to the United States looming in Lindsey Graham's mind. And he's once again helping to nurture an atmosphere of fear and panic in order to deepen the U.S. military commitment to the region."
After the January 2015 terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Graham again expressed alarm over the fate of the United States while lambasting President Obama for refusing to say the United States was in a "religious war." "I have no idea why the president of the United States won't call this a religious war. Our strategy to combat radical Islam is failing," Graham told Fox News. "I've never been more worried about being hit at home, because the president's worldview and strategy toward radical Islam is failing."
2016 Presidential Campaign Financing and Rhetoric
Graham's 2016 presidential campaign was comprised largely of individuals who worked in the unsuccessful presidential campaigns of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a close Graham ally. It was also supported by a Super PAC called "Security is Strength," which received a "significant portion" of its donations from "defense contractors that stand to gain from Graham's advocacy for greater military intervention around the world and increased defense spending."
According to the Intercept, billionaire Ron Perelman, who own a military manufacturing company, had given Graham's Super PAC $500,000 and the chief executive of General Electric, which is also a major defense contractor, had given Graham $25,000. Graham told USA Today: "If I were a defense contractor, I'd be big time for Lindsey Graham, because I've been forward-leaning on rebuilding our military."
Graham's ultra-hawkish campaign platform was similar to those of numerous other 2016 GOP candidates, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). TheWashington Post reported that Graham had "little room to distinguish himself from a crop of fresher, better-funded hopefuls with similar talking points" and that he is "barely registering in public opinion polls."
At a dinner hosted by the National Rifle Association in May 2015, Graham said: "My goal is to make sure that we go after those bastards that are trying to kill us and everybody like us and make sure they feel the wrath of this country. That we dig them out and we kill them because there is no other substitute."
In May 2015, Graham spurred widespread ridicule for saying at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) dinner that "everything that starts with 'al' in the Middle East is bad news." Benjamin Soloway of Foreign Policy said of Graham's remarks: "The comment made no sense, the Internet was quick to point out, because 'al' is an Arabic definite article analogous to the English word 'the.' A number of English words with Arabic roots begin with 'al': albatross, alchemy, alcohol, alcove, alfalfa, algebra, algorithm, and others." He added: "Graham was kidding, according to his spokesman. But his jokes tend to show just where he stands, even beyond a calculated disregard for political correctness."
Graham was mentioned in an April 2015 New York Times piece that examined why Republicans are "more fervently pro-Israel than ever." The article linked such sentiment to being "partly a result of ideology, but also a product of a surge in donations and campaign spending on their behalf by a small group of wealthy donors." The article revealed how Graham received $285,000 from "pro-Israel" donors during the 2014 midterm election, up from less than $100,000 in 2008.
In an April 2015 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Graham spoke candidly about his intention to rely on "pro-Israel" funding to support his run for president. "If I put together a finance team that will make me financially competitive enough to stay in this thing … I may have the first all-Jewish cabinet in America because of the pro-Israel funding. Bottom line is, I've got a lot of support from the pro-Israel funding," he told the Journal.
LobeLog rebuked Graham's comment: "Suggesting that 'pro-Israel funding' may determine his choice of cabinet secretaries (as well as his policies) may make even his potential benefactors squirm just a little bit in light of the purposes to which real anti-Semites who believe 'Jewish money' controls the U.S. government might put such a statement."
Graham has been a consistent proponent of U.S. military action against Iran over the country's nuclear enrichment program, which U.S. intelligence analysts have insisted is not presently geared toward producing a nuclear weapon. Calling himself "skeptical" that diplomacy can repair relations between Washington and Tehran, Graham described "Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon" as "the challenge of our time" in a March 2013 interview with the Washington Post's neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin.
In the interview, Graham described a series of Senate resolutions he was proposing to pressure the Obama administration into taking action against Iran. "First, you make the argument [that] containment is not a good idea," he said, followed by an assurance that "If Israel acts in its own defense—even preemptively—we will support Israel economically, diplomatically, and politically." Then, Graham concluded, "If the Iranians are still moving toward a nuclear capability then the next logical step would be to say, 'Mr. President, here is force authorization.'"
Ultimately, observed the blog Think Progress, "Graham and his colleagues are basically using a piecemeal approach in an effort to making going to war with Iran a more mainstream position."
At the Halifax Security Forum in November 2010, Graham surprised many in the audience with an open call for the United States to wage war on Iran's entire military apparatus, not just its nuclear facilities. According to one report, Graham said the United States should "consider sinking the Iranian navy, destroying its air force, and delivering a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard." According to the report, Graham's call to "neuter the regime, destroy its ability to fight back, and hope Iranians will take a chance to take back their government...stunned many in the audience at the Halifax International Security forum."
Graham also made headlines in December 2014 after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and openly declaring Congress' support for the Israeli leader's position on Iran as opposed to President Obama's diplomacy-based approach. After Netanyahu called for "more sanctions, and stronger sanctions" against Iran, Graham replied: "I'm here to tell you, Mr. Prime Minister, that the Congress will follow your lead."
Quipped one reporter: "What a remarkable thing to say to a foreign leader when he's hosting you in his country, especially when the president of your own country is clearly not happy with that prime minister's approach to this particular problem."
After Iran and six world powers including the United States struck a comprehensive nuclear deal in July 2015, Graham said that "he would break the Iran nuclear deal on his first day in the White House." He called the agreement a "disaster" and a "death sentence for Israel," adding that the deal was the "biggest mistake any president of the United States could make."
Graham and his allies have been at the forefront of congressional efforts to promote war in recent years, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Along with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Graham belonged to a trio of senators sometimes called the "three amigos" for their exceptionally hawkish views. "Their hawkish world views often placed them at odds with their respective parties," noted the New York Times in 2012, "but together they secured a place at the center of every major foreign policy debate."
Graham and his "amigos" were among the earliest proponents of U.S. intervention in Syria's civil war. In August 2012, the trio penned an op-ed for the Washington Post claiming that "U.S. reluctance to intervene in Syria" was "allowing this conflict to be longer and bloodier" and calling for the Obama administration to provide arms to Syrian opposition forces. Earlier that year, Graham and McCain visited opposition fighters along the Syrian border in Turkey, issuing a joint statement that "Diplomacy with Assad has failed," even as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was attempting to negotiate a ceasefire.
In June 2013, after the Obama administration announced that it would be increasing the "size and scope" of its assistance to the rebels to include weapons, Graham protested that further steps would be necessary. "AK-47s will not neutralize the advantage Assad has over the rebels," Graham said. "We need to create a no-fly zone to neutralize Assad's air power."
In an April 2015 interview with Yahoo News, Graham declared he would send as many as 10,000 U.S. ground forces into Syria along with forces from a "regional army" to overthrow the Assad government. "Assad has to go. We're going to have to send some of our soldiers back into the Middle East," he opined. "I would integrate our forces within a regional army. There's no other way to defend this nation than some of us being on the ground over there doing the fighting."
Graham has also been among the more stubborn supporters of continuing U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In September 2012, Graham, Lieberman, and McCain issued a statement calling for "an immediate suspension of further U.S. troop withdrawals" from Afghanistan. Previously, in April 2011, Graham came out against President Obama's plan to draw down the remaining U.S. forces in Iraq by the year's end. "If we're not smart enough to work with the Iraqis to have 10,000 to 15,000 American troops in Iraq in 2012," he said, "Iraq could go to hell."
Graham has occasionally run afoul of civil libertarians by endorsing expansive government powers during "wartime." A supporter of the Obama administration's warrantless surveillance of American citizens' "metadata" and online communications, Graham told a reporter in June 2013, "If I thought censoring the mail was necessary, I would suggest it." Referring to Republican critics of the program, Graham mused, "I just don't see how anybody gets elected as a Republican" by running "left of Obama on national security."
"Give Graham credit for consistency," quipped a writer for the American Conservative. "Unlike other Republican opportunists, he wants Barack Obama to exercise the same untrammeled executive powers he believes belonged to George W. Bush. No matter who the commander-in-chief is, he says America is a battlefield."
Despite his unyielding hawkishness, Graham has cultivated a "maverick" reputation by periodically partnering with Democrats on domestic issues, though he has often tacked back to the right after encountering criticism from his Republican base.
A longtime Republican backer of immigration reform, for example, Graham said in June 2013 that it "really doesn't matter" which Republican runs for president in 2016 "if we don't pass immigration reform," since "we're in a demographic death spiral as a party." On other occasions, however, Graham has echoed far-right talking points on immigration, charging in 2010 that immigrant mothers "come here to drop a child" and proposing a constitutional amendment to ban birthright citizenship.
Similarly, Graham briefly supported legislation to curb U.S. carbon emissions in early 2010. That summer, however, Graham told reporters that "The science about global warming has changed. … I think they've oversold this stuff, quite frankly. I think they've been alarmist and the science is in question. The whole movement has taken a giant step backward."
Graham served four terms in the U.S. House before being elected to the Senate in 2002. Prior to his political career, he served as a military lawyer in the U.S. Air Force; he remains a reservist in the Air National Guard. He sits on the board of directors for the International Republican Institute and previously advised the right-wing Atlantic Bridge project.