Opinion writer

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) speaks during the undercard debate in September at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a presidential candidate, is out with a robust proposal for defeating the Islamic State. It includes a plan for “a force of 10,000 troops to Iraq to reestablish stability, take back lost territory, and destroy radical extremist groups like ISIL.” He also tells Right Turn exclusively he is drafting legislation to re-impose sanctions on Iran based on its post-deal conduct, including its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is helping to fuel the growth of the Islamic State.

His proposal on the Islamic State envisions a force that “would allow us to train and advise Iraqi forces at the battalion level, and would be part of a comprehensive strategy.” That force would:

Arm, train, and equip moderate forces, including the Kurds, who are taking the fight to ISIL and Bashar Assad;

Create safe zones, backed by no-fly zones;

Aggressively apply air power, including attack helicopters;

Expand intelligence operations; and

Fully utilize special operations capability to apply constant pressure on ISIL’s leadership.

Graham, in a phone interview with me, explains that while others in his party are finally waking up to the reality that “an air war will never defeat ISIL,” his plan is something much more than asking for “boots on the ground.” He says: “We need a whole new construct. The region has woken up, and they view ISIL differently than they did Saddam Hussein and even the Taliban.” For Arab nations, he says, “ISIL is the neighbor from hell.” That means a substantial Arab force willing to fight could be assembled, provided that the U.S. “thicken” those forces with the right U.S. components. Unlike in the two Iraq wars, where the main force was provided by the United States, Graham is certain that with a limited American presence and a very large regional one, the Islamic State could be defeated. “They are not the JV team,” he says. “But they’re not 10 feet tall.”

The difficulty in enlisting Democratic support in this effort comes when Russia and Syria come into the picture. Graham’s proposal states, “Russian forces are in Syria to solidify Putin’s position in the region, secure Russia’s access to strategically important bases and ports, preserve Assad’s power — and by extension, Iran’s and Russia’s — and drive moderate rebel forces into cooperation with radical groups. Russia’s continued presence in Syria will make the current conflict longer and bloodier and radicalize moderate Sunni forces and populations.” In his plan, he therefore argues: “The United States must reassert its leadership role in the Middle East and refuse to allow Russia’s strategic aims supplant ours. If Russia is allowed to have a presence in Syria, it will be determined by the Syrian people not force of arms.” Democrats and the president are pushing the idea that we can “cooperate” with Russia in moving Assad out — eventually.

Right now, France and other European allies are trying to reach out to Russia because the United States has retreated. However, Graham argues, “That would be the worst possible outcome.” If the alternative to the Islamic State was to be a Russian-Iranian client state in Syria, our Arab allies would see little benefit in fighting. Moreover, “It is not a possible outcome [for the U.S.] to give Iran and Russia a veto over Syria.” Giving Iran and its terrorist surrogates like Hezbollah even more territory would be disastrous for our allies and for our stated aim of checking Iranian influence.

Graham saw yesterday’s news conference as a “low point” for the president. “He is incredibly disconnected from reality,” Graham says. “He’s incapable of change, and he is really is putting our nation at risk.”

Graham sees that we have gradually reverted to treating the war against the jihadists as a criminal investigation. He breaks the news that his colleague Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will be going to the floor today to seek unanimous consent to lift the caps on spending for national security, including funding for the FBI and Syria.

Graham also tells Right Turn that he will propose reinstating sanctions against Iran (which is backing Assad to the hilt) based on its conduct since the Iran nuclear deal, specifically Iran’s missile test in violation of United Nations resolutions; its grabbing of another American to hold captive; and its decision to put “boots on the ground in Syria” to further destabilize the region. His legislation would not include a presidential waiver. If the Democrats want an exit ramp to get off the president’s disastrous Iran policy, this would be a prime opportunity to show bipartisan concern for stopping Iranian aggression.

Unsurprisingly, Graham has harsh words for many of his competitors in the presidential race. He chastises Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who once said we should not provide a safe zone for Syrians because that would amount to being an “air force” for al-Qaeda and who opposed military enforcement of the red line. “Cruz opposed things that would have made a difference,” Graham says. When it comes to Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Graham says, “They have never understood the conflict.” He also criticizes both for attempting to dismantle or limit the National Security Agency and for taking the position that Americans who take up arms with the Islamic State should not be treated as enemy combatants.

As for the Syrian refugees, Graham, a supporter of immigration reform, says, “By all means take a time-out until we get a [vetting] system up and running.” However, he warns, “We aren’t going to be safe just by shutting down refugees.”

Early on, Graham understood the magnitude of the Islamic threat, advocated a war-fighting (as opposed to criminal investigation) approach, tried to prevent the Syrian bloodbath by quick U.S. action and support of non-jihadi rebels and anticipated that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and inaction in Syria would provide safe harbors for Islamic terrorists who want to strike the West. Presidential candidates with shoddy records on these issues should watch out. Graham has their number.