As chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the foreign affairs budget, Graham is well positioned to make the case to skeptical Republicans that Congress should boost aid to U.S. allies in the Middle East.
But the former Republican presidential candidate also has grander ambitions.
He said he wants to work with countries like Germany to set up “some kind of a Marshall plan for front-line states” that would focus on giving them “access to lower-interest loans, preferential trade agreements, and bolstering their civil society.”
Graham provided few details about how this would work to transform the Middle East, and getting Congress on board with the idea anytime soon will be a difficult challenge, to say the least.
But invoking the memory of the original Marshall Plan to sell this strategy has its benefits.
The multi-billion dollar post-war effort to rebuild Europe is seen as one of the United States’ more successful foreign policy undertakings of the 20th century. Pragmatically speaking, the circumstances are somewhat different this time, particularly because the United States does not have as powerful a foothold in the Middle East as it did in post-war Europe, and the effort to rebuild would be happening as hostilities in the region are still raging.
Graham admitted that both the immediate infusion of aid and his grander Marshall Plan idea will likely face resistance from fellow Republicans.
The GOP often balks at anything that looks like nation-building, and Graham’s plan would rely as much on economic development as it would on enhancing security.
“I’m the guy that wants to kill off the terrorists … that is a limited way to win this war,” Graham said Thursday. “What good have you done to bring about security if the root causes haven’t been addressed?
“They’re offering a glorious death,” he added. “Our goal is to offer a hopeful life.”
Graham also doesn’t expect to find a way to offset the billions he hopes to deliver — and that flies in the face of what has become Republican orthodoxy in an era of tightened budgets: Don’t start new spending programs that would increase the national debt.
Only in a handful of circumstances has the party seen fit to break this rule in recent years, but Graham said aid to the Middle East should not be derailed by bean counting concerns.
“If this is not an emergency, what is?” he argued.
He has got some help. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), a close Graham pal, said he would support the funding efforts, even if it couldn’t be offset. Graham expects other defense and foreign policy-minded Republicans will follow suit.
He added that he expects the plan will win support among Democrats — but there, he may run into a different set of equally strong concerns.
Many human rights-minded lawmakers may balk at handing Egypt a pile of cash, regardless of the dire security situation, at a time when President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is pursuing a variety of harsh crackdowns on his people and booting non-governmental organizations out of the country.
Graham said Thursday that he didn’t plan to ignore the human rights picture in Egypt and might try to leverage the funds to get the government to take steps to improve the situation.
“If al-Sissi did something that would be seen by me and others that would be seen as a real serious move on the human rights front, it makes it easier for a guy like me to help,” Graham said.
Democrats may also balk at Graham’s insistence that the United States commit more troops to the fight against the Islamic State, if for no other reason than to train the national armies that will have to keep the Middle East countries free from extremist groups after hostilities cease.
And there is also the matter of refugees. Democrats have rejected Republicans calls for more restrictive measures on the resettlement of refugees from Islamic State-affected areas to the United States.
But Graham said the focus on refugees misses the broader problems he argues need to be addressed with a Marshall Plan approach.
“It’s just unrealistic to think that America’s going to take enough refugees to take pressure off the front-line states,” he said.