Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has a well-earned a reputation as a problem-solving proponent of a robust national defense. He served previously in the House of Representatives. Senator Graham has also served in the U.S. Air Force, the South Carolina Air National Guard and the U.S. Air Force Reserves, including short-term Reserve stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. He retired in 2015 as a Colonel after 33 years of service. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him this month.
Editor's note: The U.S.-Israel MoU was signed as this issue went to press.
inFOCUS: The theme of this issue of inFOCUS is alliances. After the Brexit vote, you met with the British national security establishment. What’s your sense of the United Kingdom’s continuing commitment to NATO, to U.K./U.S. security relations and to the fight against ISIS?
Lindsey Graham: Ironclad. That the proponents of Brexit almost universally agree that it is in the UK’s interest to maintain a strong, robust presence in NATO.
iF: That’s comforting.
LG: They see the political infrastructure in Brussels as being detrimental to sovereignty and economic opportunity. They think the European Parliament and all the Brussels regulations are constraining their economy and their sovereignty on issues such as immigration. Not a single person saw the Supreme Allied Headquarters (NATO) in Brussels in that light. They saw it as a place where British interests were protected.
iF: on the subject of NATO, President Obama and Donald Trump have both talked about free riders and countries that don’t pay their way. How do we make the case for our continued interest in the alliance?
LG: If somebody’s behind on their dues, they need to pay their dues to keep the force up. We need to have internal discussions and push our allies on all fronts to contribute more. But those discussions should be internal and they should not be used to show lack of resolve – that if you don’t pay, you don’t get protection. We’re not selling timeshares here.
I don’t want Russia and other adversaries to think, for one moment, that the problems we have regarding contributions shapes our willingness to participate in NATO. I’m all for pushing the 28 members of NATO to hit their target of 2% GDP. That should be an internal discussion between the United States and our team; we should always be pushing our allies. But there’s a suggestion that if you’re not at 2%, you’re on your own. That just makes Russia more aggressive.
iF: Do you consider Russia to be a threat to Central Europe and do you see Russia as potentially aggressive against NATO countries?
LG: Absolutely. I think Russia is trying to re-align itself. Russia is now trying to extend its influence over neighboring nations who have traditionally been in the Russian orbit and actively trying to break the will of the European Union (EU). I think Russia has been weaponizing refugees in Syria and they’ve been creating an environment where people have to flee from Syria to create problems with the European Union. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. [Philip] Breedlove, made that point recently.
It’s possible that Putin is actively trying to undermine the EU and trying to take Turkey out and trying to intimidate the developing countries that show a desire to be close to NATO – like Jordan and Ukraine – and he’s trying to break the alliance. He sees a united Europe sharing a capitalist economy and democratic values as a threat to his dictatorship. The last thing Putin wants is to be surrounded by a democratic alliance that believes in the rule of law and the democratic process. When Trump or Obama send a signal that shows a lack of resolve, that makes the problem worse. We should be saying it is in our interest to be part of a democratic alliance, to interact economically and to pool resources to protect democratic partners from non-democratic wars and from terrorists.
The world is interconnected, so when Putin and ISIL and other types try to destabilize one part of the world, it affects us. That’s why our relationship with Israel is so important. It is shared values and common enemies. Why am I so passionate about our friends in Israel? It is the one country in the Mideast with which we share values, interests, and enemies. There’s not one enemy of Israel that is not an enemy of the United States, so this is a test of our will and our resolve. If we abandon Israel and abandon NATO, it sends signals to Assad and Putin and China that we don’t mean what we say, it will cost us more later.
iF: The new U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that hasn’t been signed yet will cut Congress out of the loop in a lot of cases for funding, particularly for missile defense funding. Are you worried about that memorandum?
LG: Number one, it’s an executive agreement between the Executive Branch of the United States government and the Prime Minister of Israel. It is not binding on Congress. It gives the Israelis a commitment over a decade that they can rely upon. This administration is nickeling and diming Israel while Israel wants to know that money will be coming from the United States to help them defend their country. My main concern about these negotiations is the part about spending some of the aid in Israel. Nobody in Congress has ever suggested that we eliminate the provisions in the current MOU that allow Israel to take a portion of the money (26%) to invest in their own domestic defense industries, with the understanding that anything they develop, they share with us.
That 26% helps keep Israeli domestic defense industries alive. I can tell you this, as an American, we receive a lot of technological advancement and military breakthroughs from Israeli defense development. Stryker, Iron Dome technology, all of that is shared.
I’m okay with Israel being the only country that can do these things. Over the next decade, I think they’re going to need to spend more on domestic defense research and development because the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] is going to be under more threat, not less. This MOU sends the wrong signal to the Ayatollahs. I am appalled that the administration would make the Ayatollahs flush with cash by giving the largest state sponsor of terrorism access to $150 billion in sanctions relief without any requirement that they change their behavior. Instead, it is nickeling and diming Israel, and I think that’s the wrong ship to sail.
Further, I am the chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee [of the Senate Appropriations Committee]. This year, Israel’s aid went from $3.1 billion to $3.4 billion, higher than the MOU number. Two of the last three years, we’ve given Jordan $200 million dollars more than their MOU number, the price of the refugee problem and the price of the increased threat from Syria. I think that a lot of the behavior in the region – test firing ballistic missiles, advanced missile technology that could hit Israel any place, where an Iron Dome system probably won’t work – justifies a spike in funding for Israel as well. But the administration has told Israelis they won’t sign an MOU unless I agree to go back to $3.1 billion for this year.
That’s inappropriate for any administration if I’m not part of negotiating the agreement. I wish I had that much say over the Iran deal. The bottom line is Congress has an independent obligation, duty and responsibility. I find it odd that the administration did not say one thing about additional funds to Jordan, but they are objecting to what we did for Israel.
This year, Congress appropriated $600 million for missile defense for Israel. The current MOU doesn’t include missile defense money. The administration is insisting that any new MOU include missile defense money. They’re filling out the number, $500 million. Basically, they’re trying to put missile defense in the new MOU at $100 million dollars below what Congress has done for the last three years. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.
I want an MOU, but I will not be told by this administration, led by Barack Obama, how to appropriate money, because that’s not healthy for our democracy. Congress has an independent role here. We’re not part of the MOU, so that’s an institutional prerogative that has to be maintained. My belief is that, over the next 10 years, Israel’s defense needs are going to be greater because the enemies of Israel have been empowered by policy from this administration. I want Iran and the region to see a stronger commitment to Israel.
iF: Do you have support in the Senate for your position?
LG: I know this. I want to hear from my colleagues if $3.4 billion is too much for Israel, given the threats they face. I want to hear if they were okay with $275 million more for Jordan but not okay with $300 million more for Israel. I want to hear from my colleagues who believe that the Iran deal created less threat for Israel, not more. Nobody on the committee objected to $3.4 million. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and I wrote a letter to the administration urging them to be more generous in the MOU negotiations.
Again, I find it odd that the administration has made the Ayatollahs flush with cash, but has done nothing when it comes to pushing back against their missile test and UN Resolution violations. On the other hand, it’s taken such a hard line against Israel. I will not be told by this administration how to appropriate. I don’t think any member of Congress should ever be told that.
So now I am going to introduce a stand-alone supplemental of $1.5 billion dollars. In light of the Iran nuclear deal and the provocative behavior coming out of Iran since the deal, the test firing of the ballistic missiles in violation of UN Resolutions, firing clips against Israel, providing hundreds of new missiles to Hezbollah, many of them precision-guided, I believe the proper response is for Congress to increase assistance to Israel. I’m asking Congress to give Israel 1% of the $150 billion the Ayatollahs will receive. We’ll see how my colleagues feel about that proposition.
iF: Can I turn back to NATO? NATO is supposed to be an alliance of democracies and it’s not clear that Turkey quite fits in there anymore. How do you see the future of Turkey in NATO?
LG: Three countries concern me: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. Saudi Arabia has some new leadership coming up that I’m encouraged by. Egypt, under [President Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi, has to help us help them more. He’s doing a good job taking the fight to ISIL and Hamas, working with Israel in an unprecedented way, but he’s very heavy-handed inside of Egypt. That hurts the people and hurts the economy. I want him to be a better partner and I want to try to help President el-Sisi put his country back together.
[Turkish President Recep Tayyip]Erdogan is making a Putin-type play. A military coup against any democratic government is absolutely out of bounds. His response and the way he’s diminished the rule of law, though, is very problematic. But Turkey is rightfully upset about the way the civil war is unfolding in Syria. I understand Erdogan being concerned about our Mideast policy. The problem I see with Erdogan is that he is going to continue to Putinize Turkey and that’s going to be a real problem for us and Turkey and NATO.
iF: You mentioned Syria being a bone of contention between the Turks and the United States.
LG: Here’s the bone of contention. Obama has a hands-on policy toward Assad. The Arabs are right to be upset with us forming an alliance with Russia that keeps Assad in power. Assad is a puppet of Iran. Iran is the benefactor of Iraq. Iran has provided weapons to terrorist groups in Iraq that kill American soldiers. Iran supports Hezbollah, which is one of the mortal enemies of Israel. And Assad is in the pocket of the Ayatollahs. There is a lot of concern by the Arabs and Turkey over Obama’s policies and John Kerry’s never-ending desire to go to Russia and beg them for help. The administration says it is their policy that Assad must go. But the Arabs and Turkey see our policy as one of appeasing Russia and Iran and Assad will stay and Obama will go.
iF: If we move on to Iraq, I have a slightly different kind of question. We now have about 7000 American soldiers in Iraq.
LG: More than that, if you count the ones that are off the books.
iF: OK. Do we need a new Authorization for the Use of Force (AUMF)?
LG: No, but I would welcome the debate. Here’s my authorization to use force; I’ve already written it. “When it comes to ISIL, you can go wherever they go. You can use whatever means our military recommends and you can do it as long as it takes.” The Obama administration lectured Congress about not authorizing the war; they say they already have the authority. I sent the president an authorization that was very plainly written, just like we did against al-Qaeda: when it comes to fighting ISIL, the Congress authorizes the president to do what’s necessary, not hindered by means, geography or time. The administration won’t accept that authorization because it puts us on war footing with ISIL. It is that type of inconsistency that emboldens our enemies.
iF: Was leaving Iraq in 2011 a mistake?
LG: Probably the biggest mistake Obama made, second only to drawing the red line. 400,000 or more killed in Syria, the rise of Islamic State in the Levant, al-Qaeda in Iraq – I’m confident al-Qaeda in Iraq would not have come out of the ashes as ISIL. The perfect storm occurred. We withdrew all of our forces in Iraq against sound military advice and Obama declared victory. Obama’s entire national security team advised him to help the Free Syrian Army while it was still intact, three or four years ago. He said no. A combination of withdrawing from Iraq and not helping Syrian forces at a time when Assad was on the ropes led to the rise of ISIL, with the reemergence of Russia in the Mideast, and Iran in Syria.
So out of that decision to leave Iraq prematurely and not to help the Free Syrian Army, President Obama allowed the Iranians to entrench their partnership with Assad, and he gave Russia a new foothold in the Mideast and a dominance that they hadn’t known before. As the icing on the cake, when he drew the red line against Assad and did nothing about it, it was a green light to Russia, China and Iran to be provocative as hell. If he had left troops in Iraq, I think all of this probably wouldn’t have happened.
iF: Is the same true of Libya? That leaving Qaddafi in place would have prevented the rise of ISIS in Libya?
LG: The Arab spring is real, whether people like it or not. The Egyptian people didn’t want to be ruled by Mubarak anymore because he got everything and most got nothing. They went to the street against Qaddafi. They went to the street against Assad. NATO finally acted. The problem was not taking Qaddafi down. The problem was that we did not help the Libyans after he was overthrown. In the election after the fall of Qaddafi, Islamists had 10% of the vote. Libya proved that people were ready for a new way. We didn’t follow up. We didn’t need 100,000 troops, but there should have been some effort to train their army, help their police, and guide these people through the transition. John McCain and I went to Libya after Qaddafi was taken down and they were chanting our names because we were so out there, trying to get Qaddafi gone. The Libyan people would not be where they are today if Obama had followed through as recommended by almost everybody.
You can argue that going into Iraq was a mistake; you can argue that Bush made mistakes. I think that’s true. But there is no doubt in my mind the surge worked, and in 2011 Iraq was on a trajectory to be a stable country. All we needed to do was leave some troops there and stay involved and we would have turned the corner in Iraq. If we’d have gotten involved through NATO, replaced Qaddafi, and then helped the people, I’m convinced that Libya would not be the safe haven it is for terrorists. Leading from behind is not working. Obama is obsessed with not being Bush. In many ways, he made the same mistakes in Libya that Bush did in Iraq. Once you take a dictator down, whether we do it or the people do it, if you don’t realize what follows, you make a mistake.
iF: Senator, let me thank you on behalf of the readers of inFocus and on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center and its members. This has been an extraordinary interview.