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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Lindsey Graham

    • U.S. Senator (R-SC)

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Lindsey Graham is the senior U.S. senator from South Carolina. Although sometimes characterized as a Republican "maverick" for his bipartisan forays into domestic policy, Graham is also a staunch foreign policy hawk, promoting U.S. military intervention across the Greater Middle East.

Graham reprised his role as one of the Senate's leading national security hardliners shortly after President Barack Obama's 2014 state of the union address, during which the president re-iterated his opposition to imposing new sanctions on Iran while negotiations are underway to curtail that country's nuclear energy program. Shortly after the address Graham told reporters that "The world as I know was not remotely described by the president," adding: "The world is literally about to blow up."[1] 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."[2]

Pushing War

Graham and his allies have been at the forefront of congressional efforts to promote war in recent years, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iran. 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."[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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."[6]

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.[7]

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.'"[8]

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."[9]

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."[10]

Graham has also been among the most obdurate supporters of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and, before that, Iraq. In September 2012, Graham, Lieberman, and McCain issued a statement calling for "an immediate suspension of further U.S. troop withdrawals" from Afghanistan.[11] 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."[12]

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."[13] 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."[14]

"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."[15]


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."[16] 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.[17]

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."[18]

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.[19] He sits on the board of directors for the International Republican Institute and previously advised the right-wing Atlantic Bridge project.

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[1] Niels Lesniewski, "Graham Says World 'Literally About to Blow Up'," Roll Call, January 28, 2014, http://blogs.rollcall.com/wgdb/graham-says-world-literally-about-to-blow-up/.

[2] Igor Bobic, "Graham To Obama: Global War On Terror Isn't Over," Talking Points Memo, May 23, 2013, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/graham-to-obama-global-war-on-terror-isn-t-over.

[3] Jennifer Steinhauer, "Foreign Policy's Bipartisan Trio Becomes Republican Duo," New York Times, November 26, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/us/politics/liebermans-retirement-is-end-of-three-amigos.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[4] John McCain, Joseph I. Lieberman and Lindsey O. Graham, "The risks of inaction in Syria," Washington Post, August 5, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/mccain-lieberman-and-graham-the-risks-of-inaction-in-syria/2012/08/05/4a63585c-dd91-11e1-8e43-4a3c4375504a_story.html.

[5] Josh Rogin, "McCain and Lieberman meet with the Free Syria Army," Foreign Policy "The Cable" blog, April 10, 2012, http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/04/10/mccain_and_lieberman_meet_with_the_free_syria_army.

[6] Brian Hughes, " Sen. Lindsey Graham rips Obama on Syria," Washington Examiner, June 16, 2013, http://washingtonexaminer.com/sen.-graham-rips-obama-on-syria/article/2531957.

[7] Jennifer Rubin, "Graham previews his Iran resolutions, including force authorization," Washington Post, March 4, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2013/03/04/graham-previews-his-iran-resolutions-including-force-authorization/.

[8] Jennifer Rubin, "Graham previews his Iran resolutions, including force authorization," Washington Post, March 4, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2013/03/04/graham-previews-his-iran-resolutions-including-force-authorization/.

[9] Think Progress, "National Security Brief: GOP Senator Says Iran Resolutions Meant To 'Build A Case' For War Authorization," March 5, 2013, http://thinkprogress.org/security/2013/03/05/1673151/national-security-brief-graham-iran-war-authorization/.

[10] Associated Press, "Lindsey Graham Makes The Case For Strike On Iran," Huffington Post, November 6, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/06/lindsey-graham-calls-for-strike-on-iran_n_779997.html.

[11] Lindsey Graham Press Release, "Graham, McCain, Lieberman Statement on Afghanistan," September 19, 2012, http://www.lgraham.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressRoom.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=dedfe283-802a-23ad-4554-c6b33f68e619.

[12] Robert Burns/Associated Press, "Pentagon Has Second Thoughts About U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Iraq," CNS News, April 11, 2011, http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/pentagon-has-second-thoughts-about-us-troop-withdrawal-iraq.

[13] Chris Moody, " Lindsey Graham: 'If I thought censoring the mail was necessary, I would suggest it,'" Yahoo News, June 11, 2013, http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/lindsey-graham-thought-censoring-mail-necessary-suggest-182932835.html.

[14] Associated Press, "Lindsey Graham: Republicans Attacking Surveillance Program 'Marginal' Figures in Party," Newsmax, June 12, 2013, http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/NSA-Surveillance-Politics/2013/06/12/id/509417.

[15] W. James Antle III, " Civil Liberties: A GOP Civil War?" American Conservative, June 10, 2013, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/civil-liberties-a-gop-civil-war/.

[16] Igor Volsky, "Lindsey Graham Warns GOP: 'It Doesn't Matter Who We Run In 2016' If Immigration Reform Fails," Think Progress, June 16, 2013, http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2013/06/16/2165161/lindsey-graham-warns-gop-it-doesnt-matter-who-we-run-in-2016-if-immigration-reform-fails/.

[17] Julia Preston, "Births to Illegal Immigrants Are Studied," New York Times, August 11, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/12/us/12babies.html.

[18] Kate Sheppard, "Lindsey Graham Said What About Climate Change?" Mother Jones, June 9, 2010, http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2010/06/graham-takes-climate-denial-plunge.

[19] Lindsey Graham Senate bio, http://www.lgraham.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=AboutSenatorGraham.Biography.

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Lindsey Graham Résumé


    • International Republican Institute: Board of Directors
    • Atlantic Bridge: Former Adviser


    • U.S. Senate (R-SC): 2003 –
    • U.S. House of Representatives (R-SC): 1995-2003
    • South Carolina House of Representatives: 1993-1995
    • South Carolina Air National Guard: 1988 –
    • U.S. Air Force: 1982-1988


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