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Lindsey Graham al-Most Knows Arabic

"Everything that starts with 'al' in the Middle East is bad news," hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a probable presidential hopeful, told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at a Boston dinner this week.

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NASHUA, NH - APRIL 18: U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit April 18, 2015 in Nashua, New Hampshire. The Summit brought together local and national Republicans and was attended by all the Republicans candidates as well as those eyeing a run for the nomination. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Lindsay Graham

“Everything that starts with ‘al’ in the Middle East is bad news,” hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a probable presidential hopeful, told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at a Boston dinner this week. “Al Qaeda, al-Nusra, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula.”

The comment made no sense, the Internet was quick to point out, because “al” is an Arabic definite article analogous to the English word “the.” A number of English words with Arabic roots begin with “al”: albatross, alchemy, alcohol, alcove, alfalfa, algebra, algorithm, and others.

Graham was the keynote speaker at the dinner for an estimated 1,000 Israel supporters, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. He also said he would work to curb funding to the United Nations, in his capacity as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, if the body tried to “marginalize” Israel.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on the odd remark after investigative journalist Uri Blau, who attended the dinner, wrote about it on his personal blog.

“[Graham] has said this literally dozens of times, and it’s a joke,” Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop told Foreign Policy. “He’s been saying it for months. It’s a humorous point.”

Knowledge of Arabic won’t necessarily score points with core Republican constituents in early primary states, whom Graham will have to win over if he wants to stand out from the growing group of contenders. Six Republicans have announced their candidacies, and at least seven more will probably join them. But as a leading hawk and an ardent supporter of Israel, Graham likely will need to rely on his outspoken foreign-policy positions to differentiate himself from other long-shot contenders, some of whom have relatively little credibility abroad.

Pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, all of whom announced their candidacies this week, have varying views on record. They range from Huckabee’s erroneous comments on Pakistan and admission of ignorance on Iran in the run-up to his 2008 presidential campaign, to Carson’s recent endorsement of war crimes. (“If you’re gonna have rules for war, you should just have a rule that says no war,” he said. “Other than that, we have to win.”)

Unlike Huckabee and Carson, Graham was kidding, according to his spokesman. But his jokes tend to show just where he stands, even beyond a calculated disregard for political correctness. “I may have the first all-Jewish cabinet in America because of the pro-Israel funding,” he told the Wall Street Journal in April.

Photo credit: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy@bsoloway

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