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Opinion EXCLUSIVE: Sen. Lindsey Graham on Syria

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Right Turn in a phone conversation this morning, “I’m not going to support a strategy that has zero chance of success.” Contrary to news reports, he told me that he and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) aren’t yet sold on President Obama’s strategy for Syria. Without them, Graham said bluntly, there is little chance of a “yes” vote from Congress. “I don’t know if we can carry [the yes vote] over the finish line but I can assure defeat without us.”

Graham is realistic about our current options. “This is not a yes or no question. It’s about bad and worse,” he observed. “Good and very good are in the rear view mirror.” Nevertheless, he warned, “I’ve got to be convinced there is a strategy.” Right now, the jury is out. For the first time I can recall, he said a hapless effort with no chance of success is “just as bad” as a “no” vote.

It isn’t yet clear, however, that what he and McCain would support is what the president has in mind. Graham sketched out what an effective plan would entail: “A strike that degrades [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad’s chemical weapons, followed up by aid to the rebels and, regionally, to get others involved as well.” Graham said that in private briefings he needs to be assured more about the extent of the military operation. “I want to get clear about the strike itself. If it is broad enough it would degrade Assad’s overall military capability.” In short, what Graham and McCain are looking for is a strike that will be “robust but not open-ended.” Graham said explicitly, “I don’t see this as Afghanistan or Iraq.” For Graham and McCain, he said, “We don’t advocate boots on the ground, but we are advocating changing the balance of power.”

He dismisses the Pentagon’s latest position that time is not of the essence. “I have long since lost confidence in DOD’s approach to Syria.”

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The difficulty Graham and McCain face is that the president is not explaining this to the American people or Congress as a whole. Graham said that the president can send all the emissaries he likes to Congress. However, “I believe if the president doesn’t do it himself it won’t happen. The president as commander in chief needs to address the American people.” Among other things, Grahams believes, ” The president will have to knock down the argument that we are on the side of al-Qaeda.” On this score, Graham voices frustration with two years of delay, which has allowed jihadists to begin “filling the vacuum.” He told me, “I don’t  know who believes letting it drag on is a good idea. If we wait another year, Jordan will be [overrun] by Islamic extremists.” He is candid that there will be a “fight on the ground” after Assad goes, but remains deeply convinced that “the Syrian people don’t want to trade a dictator for al-Qaeda.”

Graham also talked about the financial cost of the action. “It makes sequestration more real,” he observed. Plainly, he said the Pentagon has to be adequately funded, especially given the Syria action. “What I say to the people back home is ‘What is the role of the federal government?’ The number one obligation is to keep the country safe, ” he said. “Look, I’m war weary, but I’m not so tired as to take my eye off the ball. The reason 3,000 and not 3 million were killed on 9/11 is that the jihadists didn’t have access to WMD’s.”

I asked him what the chances of a yes vote were. “It’s a jump ball. People are persuadable,” he said of his colleagues. He warned that if the Democrats make the resolution narrower, as some are now promising to do, they will lose McCain and him.

He described three groups: The “slippery slope” group who don’t want to slide into another Iraq, the “liberal/libertarian group who doesn’t want to do anything,” and the “change the balance of power” group. He said, “I’m in the balance of power group.” He said it is possible to bring together the “slippery slope” and the “change the balance” of power group if the plan in Syria is limited but robust strikes followed by significant aid (including military aid) to the rebels and the cooperation of regional players like Turkey and Jordan.

He didn’t underline the point, but had we done this a year or two ago, not only would Assad have been deprived of chemical weapons, but also the lion’s share of the 100,000 dead could still be alive, and Jordan wouldn’t be on the verge of collapse. For this, the president has no one to blame but himself. To get himself out of it, Obama will need McCain and Graham to help, and without a viable plan he’s not getting them.