Lindsey Graham: Wrong on Everything

The senator from the great state of South Carolina is considering a run for president, based on his foreign-policy prowess. Yikes.

Senators Attend Briefing On Release Of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 04: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) talks to reporters as he arrives at a closed door briefing June 4, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Officials from the Obama Administration were on the Hill to brief Senate members on the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A week ago Sunday, Lindsey Graham found himself in a familiar place: on NBC’s Meet the Press trying to scare the hell out of Americans. Graham, a senator from South Carolina since 2003, is one of the Republican Party’s leading spokespeople on national security and international relations issues.

This particular appearance, however, gave Graham the opportunity to make some real news — namely that he is considering throwing his hat in the ring for the Republican presidential nomination. “I think the world is falling apart,” said Graham in a preview of his potential presidential pitch, “and I’ve been more right than wrong when it comes to foreign policy.”

A review, however, of the senator’s foreign-policy pronouncements speaks to a different reality. Lindsey Graham is, in fact, far more often wrong than he is right. Occasionally, he is more than just wrong: Sometimes, he’s completely out of his mind. In a town filled with threat-mongers, fear-merchants, and hand-wringers, there is no one mongering more threats, selling more fear and wringing more hands than Sen. Graham. It’s going to be awfully hard for candidate Graham to lift people up when he’s constantly telling them the sky is falling.

For Graham, there is a consistent taxonomy to his apocalyptic warnings: “weakness” and “indecision” are bad (and are defining attributes of Democrats like Barack Obama) and “resolve,” “leadership,” and willingness to use force are good (and are attributes of Republicans like Ronald Reagan or John McCain, who has referred to Graham as his “illegitimate son”). If he’s not exaggerating a threat, he’s bloviating about how a lack of determination has left Americans vulnerable. If he’s not recommending that Americans be sent into harm’s way, he’s pooh-poohing the notion that diplomacy or any form of coercion that doesn’t include bombs, can be effective.

The United States is always “the good guys” for Graham, a point he made in 2004, at the same time that he said that in the U.S. occupation of Iraq “we have an opportunity to demonstrate to the Arab world and others that the rule of law matters.” Strong words, but slightly in conflict with his statement after the arrest of the Boston Marathon bomber that he should be denied due process and treated as an enemy combatant.

At its core, however, Graham’s rhetoric is driven by an extraordinarily dystopian — and factually incorrect — view of the world. In January 2014, he said, “The world is literally about to blow up.” A year later, we’re still here and Graham is still wrong. “We live in the most dangerous times imaginable,” he said in July 2013. But it requires memory, not imagination, to realize that this is not true — unless Graham believes that World War II was the global equivalent of a traffic dispute. Considering that Graham, who was born in 1955 lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and 9/11, it’s a bit hard to square his regular alarmism about the state of the world with reality.

Indeed, Graham is so convinced that the world is about to proverbially tumble off its axis that this summer he said it “scares him” that Secretary of State John Kerry “thinks the world is in such good shape.” Even optimism causes Lindsey Graham to clutch pearls.

Remarkably, being consistently and habitually wrong about the nature of global affairs in the 21st century has not impeded Graham in being taken seriously as a foreign-policy voice. Like many Republicans, he enthusiastically supported the Iraq War, but even then he stood out with his trademark bombast and incorrectness. For example, in 2002 and 2003 he repeatedly declared that Saddam Hussein was “flat-out lying” about having weapons of mass destruction.

In fairness, a lot of people got Iraq’s WMD wrong, but as is so often the case with Graham he matches being incorrect with over-the-top statements for which he is almost never held accountable. For example, in 2002 he said that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein was essential because the Iraqi regime represents “a threat to our way of life” and that, with Hussein gone, the United States could subsequently introduce democracy in the Middle East. Oops.

Even as the security situation in Iraq fell apart, Graham quickly doubled down and became one of the loudest advocates for sending more troops to the conflict. “The Iraqi people have turned a corner. Be patient,” counseled Graham in 2007. “Continue to supply strongly economic, political and military support, and I believe … we’ll have a breakthrough in Baghdad.”

It was a far cry from the position Graham took in 2003 when he was asked how long U.S. troops must stay in Iraq. “Perhaps a year or more,” he said, but added, “If we’re there through 2009, something went wrong.”

Graham would likely defend his past statements by saying that Obama screwed up all the gains made in Iraq by withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011. It’s of course a regular GOP refrain. Yet for Graham, it’s an interesting position to take because under the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, Obama was mandated to end the U.S. troop presence if he could not get the Iraqis to agree to provide legal protections for U.S. soldiers. This is a subject that Graham likely knows something about, seeing as he is judge advocate general in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. Indeed, if there is anyone in the Senate who should understand the need for clear legal protections when deploying U.S. troops overseas it would be Graham.

Yet Sen. Graham is not one to allow the rule of law, facts, or reality get in the way of a political talking point. As was the case in 2003 with Iraq — and 2007 — and pretty much every international crisis since, Graham has a simple solution for when bad things are happening around the world. Use force.

For example, in the fall of 2011, Graham criticized Obama for not putting boots on the ground in Libya, a decision which he claimed “drug [sic] out the war” longer. “From my point of view,” said Graham, “we need as many people on the ground as the Libyan people will welcome to shape the next few months.” Why? He offered this typical Graham-like word salad that combines high-minded platitudes with non sequiturs and disconnected data points: “There’s a revolutionary change in the Middle East,” said Graham, “where women are driving in Saudi Arabia, Gadhafi is dead, Syria is on the ropes. We need to get involved, they’re about to have their first free and fair, I hope, election in 6,000 years in Egypt.”

In early 2014, Graham blamed the Russian takeover of Crimea on Obama’s decision not to avenge the killing of four U.S. diplomats in Benghazi — as if somehow Vladimir Putin’s conception of Russian self-interest is based almost exclusively on Things America Does. By Graham’s reasoning, when the ringleader of the Benghazi attack was captured in June of last year, it should have led to Russia’s withdrawal from eastern Ukraine. Yet, Putin has instead doubled down. Not surprisingly, Graham has only contempt and belittlement for Obama’s policy toward Moscow. Dismissing sanctions as a pale substitute for more military aid to Ukraine, Graham complains, “Nothing we have done has put Putin in a box.” The issue is once again one of optics and displays of weakness. “There’s a battle of wills between the KGB colonel and the community organizer,” said Graham in July, “and the colonel is winning.”

It’s a point he metaphorically reiterated in his Jan. 18 “Meet the Press” appearance. “If we could show some resolve in Syria and Iraq and … go after these guys … with success it would change the landscape throughout the world. Success anywhere breeds success everywhere; fear in any one spot hurts you everywhere.” Perhaps if he wins the presidency, Graham can declare a war on fear.

It’s on Syria, however, where Graham has practically outdone himself in both belligerence and dark warnings of impending peril. In September 2013, he predicted, “Chemical weapons in Syria today means nuclear weapons in the U.S. tomorrow.” One can only assume that Graham was using tomorrow in the broadest possible sense, though even then the fact that Assad no longer has chemical weapons would suggest Graham’s fears are probably misplaced.

A few months earlier he said if the Washington didn’t change course in Syria, it would “become a failed state by the end of the year” (it probably already was); “the chemical weapons are going to be compromised and fall into the wrong hands” (or the international community’s after a U.S.-brokered deal to destroy them; Jordan “could fall” (still waiting); and “we’re going to have a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program (since that statement, Tehran signed an agreement with the P5+1 to limit its nuclear ambitions and, by all accounts, has adhered to it.)

Like Syria, Iran is another bugaboo for Graham. In 2009, he said because of Tehran’s nuclear program, “We’re walking down the road to Armageddon.” In 2012, he said the United States was facing an “existential threat” from non-nuclear Iran. And in September 2013 he said, “The last place in the world you want nuclear weapons is the Mideast. Why? People over there are crazy.” One can assume that doesn’t include Israel’s leaders.

Still, Graham’s rhetoric on Iran almost looks quaint in comparison to his comments on the Islamic State, which he now calls a “direct threat” to the United States and if unchecked, “will open the gates of hell to spill out on the world.”

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of bluster as mere political theater. After all, there is little question that Graham’s incessant fear-mongering is largely partisan posturing — and makes for such great lowest-common-denominator TV. Still, whether political or genuine, the result of such inflated rhetoric is that Graham is only adding to the mistaken view, held overwhelmingly by Americans, that the world is a dangerous place with countless threats to national security.

The reality is that we have reams of data showing that there are actually few conflicts today, far more electoral democracies than just a quarter century ago, higher living standards, and more economic prosperity than pretty much any point in human history. Graham isn’t just spreading fear for political ends; he’s lying to the American people.

Being wrong is the worst of Lindsey Graham’s crimes. Of course, if in the extraordinarily unlikely circumstance that he gets elected president — then we’re really in trouble.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.