Acting on the time-tested theory of presidential candidacies known as “Why the hell not?”, Senator Lindsey Graham joined the 2016 GOP contest today. And right from the outset, after thanking folks for coming and saying he’s running, Graham got to his candidacy’s central rationale:
I want to be president to protect our nation that we all love so much from all threats foreign and domestic.
So get ready. I know I’m ready.
I want to be president to defeat the enemies trying to kill us, not just penalize them or criticize them or contain them, but defeat them.
Ronald Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength” kept America safe during the Cold War. But we will never enjoy peaceful co-existence with radical Islam because its followers are committed to destroying us and our way of life. However, America can have “Security through Strength.”
If you think about it, that almost sounds like Graham is saying that Reaganism isn’t enough, a disturbing hint of heresy. Since we can’t have peace, Graham implies, we might as well just get ready for war.
And unless his entire career has been a ruse, that’s exactly what we’d get with a Lindsey Graham presidency. You thought George W. Bush liked to play on Americans’ fears to justify military action? Well that was nothing. Lindsey Graham has never met a foreign policy challenge that didn’t terrify him down to the marrow of his bones. Let the other candidates treat voters like children, telling them that there are serious threats to America that must be confronted. Only Lindsey Graham has the courage to look voters in the eye and say forthrightly: terrorists are coming to kill your children, unless Iran gets to them first and incinerates them in a nuclear blast.
For Graham, the threats are everywhere. Domestic? You betcha — he needs his AR-15 because there could be a natural disaster resulting in “armed gangs roaming around neighborhoods.” Foreign? Oh goodness, yes. On ISIS, “This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.”
For Graham, not only is the world filled with specific dangers, but it’s terrifying in an overarching way, leading to a kind of free-floating anxiety that seems to influence how he views any particular issue. Others may see a threat here and a threat there, but Graham knows that they add up to certain doom. Two years ago, he told Fox News, “The trifecta from hell is unfolding in front of us. Iran is about to get a nuclear weapon, Syria is about to infect the entire region, taking Jordan down, and Egypt could become a failed state…I’m just telling you, we live in the most dangerous times imaginable.”
Last year, he said, “The world is literally about to blow up,” which might have been a Joe Biden “literally,” meaning “not literally,” but maybe not. “I’m running because of what I see on television,” he said two weeks ago. “The world is falling apart.”
And every problem we face can only lead to catastrophe. “I believe that if we get Syria wrong, within six months — and you can quote me on this — there will be a war between Iran and Israel over their nuclear program,” he said in September 2013. “My fear is that it won’t come to America on top of a missile, it’ll come in the belly of a ship in the Charleston or New York harbor.” Almost two years later, though Graham certainly believes the Obama administration has gotten Syria wrong, Israel and Iran have not gone to war and Charleston harbor remains oddly un-nuked.
But he will not be deterred. “The world is exploding in terror and violence but the biggest threat of all is the nuclear ambitions of the radical Islamists who control Iran,” he said in his announcement speech. “Simply put, radical Islam is running wild.”
Graham argues that none of his opponents have the foreign policy experience he does, which is true enough — they’re all either governors or freshman senators. But that fact raises the question of what value one gets from experience. Some people take from their experience with the world that many challenges are complex, understanding of the myriad moving parts in any foreign crisis is necessary to make wise decisions, and different situations may require different approaches. Graham’s experience with the world, on the other hand, has obviously taught him that 1) we’re all gonna die, and 2) the answer to just about any problem is military force.
What impact he will have on the race remains to be seen. It isn’t as though the other GOP candidates are a bunch of doves. They all talk about how they want to increase military spending, and with the exception of Rand Paul they all advocate a return to some version of Bush-era hawkishness and its accompanying military adventurism. Only Graham, though, is offering a campaign based on true white-knuckle terror. It’s hard to see it going over all that well.