Top GOP senator: Obama's 2012 odds are tied to national security

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, tongues have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 8:55 PM

President Obama stands a good chance of being reelected in 2012 if he makes progress in Afghanistan, he adopts a tougher line against Iran, the economy improves and there are no major terrorist attacks in the United States, a senior Republican said Saturday.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who has become a leading GOP national security spokesman, said that if Obama is looking for cooperation with Republicans, a continued U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is "one area where Republicans feel comfortable standing by the president" and are likely to give him more support than many in his own party.

Although Graham predicted Republican support for more aggressive U.S. involvement in the world, he acknowledged that some new members of Congress, particularly those elected under the tea party banner, are likely to have different foreign policy views.

"The Republican Party is going to have two wings," he said at a high-level security conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and the Canadian government. "The isolationist wing, and the wing led by [Sen. John] McCain [Ariz.], Graham and [Sen. Jeff] Sessions [Ala.] that says you'd better stay involved in the world because if you do disengage, you'll regret it."

"If you ask Rand Paul about NATO and ask Rob Portman, you'll get two different answers," Graham said. Paul, just elected GOP senator from Kentucky, is a tea party favorite. Portman, a former House member and George W. Bush administration international trade representative, has a record of foreign involvement.

Storms and high winds in Halifax prevented a delegation of six U.S. senators - three Republicans and three Democrats - from landing there Friday. After being turned back from the Halifax airport several times, the senators - Graham, McCain, Sessions and Democrats Mark Udall (Colo.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.) - landed in Bangor, Maine, where they spent the night along with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who was also grounded.

Napolitano, who said she stayed at the Bangor Holiday Inn, "down the strip from the Dunkin' Donuts," described a pleasant group dinner with the senators.

Udall, who appeared on a panel Saturday with Graham, agreed with his Republican counterpart that foreign policy was a non-issue in last week's election. "The message was: Get to work on the economy," he said.

Graham called the lack of candidate debate on national security "stunning." The electorate should "challenge" newly elected lawmakers "early on," he said, asking, "What is your view of the world?" Lawmakers should "go back home and tell people why no treaty with Russia is a good thing if a good thing could be had" with some changes to the document the administration has negotiated with Moscow, as many Republicans have advocated.

"This idea of isolationism in an economic downturn has been seen in the past," he said. "And what happens is that really bad people get a pass, because [the United States] starts looking inward."

Graham said that if Obama "does a good job of keeping us safe, I would not be surprised if he did get reelected if the economy rebounds." He said that by 2012 it will be clear whether progress is being made in Afghanistan and whether Iran's nuclear ambitions have been checked.

Repeating comments he has made before on Iran, Graham said Obama would earn Republican backing if he went beyond sanctions and made "abundantly clear that all options are on the table. And we know what that means. If the day ever came" when Iran developed a bomb, he said, he would advise Obama to "not just neutralize their nuclear program . . . but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard."

"In other words, neuter that regime. Destroy their ability to fight back."

Udall, asked if he concurred, said that most Democratic lawmakers "agree that you keep all options on the table." But "I'm not willing to put my support behind" the "very serious" steps outlined by Graham as a "theoretical concept."

Sessions, asked later about Graham's description of a Republican caucus with "two wings," said the GOP would doubtless "have a few" with isolationist views, and some who will take more aggressive national security policies. "The truth is probably somewhere in between."

On the strategic weapons reduction treaty negotiated with Russia, Sessions said it was unclear whether Obama would push for ratification in a lame-duck session of the Senate before newly elected members take office in January. He advised against it, saying that even some Republican senators who approved the agreement in a recent committee vote want further debate and some changes.

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