Perhaps more than any other presidential candidate, Sen. Lindsey Graham enjoys telling people to vote for somebody else.
"Radical Islam is not going to be compromised with. They are religious Nazis. Somebody better go over there and hit them before they hit us," Graham said Wednesday. "There is no alternative to going in on the ground and pulling the caliphate up by the roots. If that scares you, don't vote for me."
On Wednesday, that could apply to the member of the anti-war group Code Pink who went on a diatribe during the question-and-answer session that followed the South Carolina Republican's foreign policy rollout at the Atlantic Council.
"I'm going to put her down as 'undecided,'" Graham said as event staff wrangled a microphone away from the protester. "This is your country as much as mine. You've got a right to every opinion you've expressed, right? I couldn't disagree with you more. I think people like you make the world incredibly dangerous. I think people like you are radical Islam's best hope."
It's never a secret what Graham thinks, particularly when it comes to his plans for war in the Middle East. And in making his campaign pitch for foreign policy, the Republican presidential candidate from South Carolina promised more of what anyone who's talked to Graham would expect — for better or worse.
"I will always tell the American people the truth about what we need to do to be safe. My message at times may be hard to hear," Graham said in prepared remarks. "But I will never leave our nation vulnerable out of deference to polls. My commitment is simple: whatever it takes, as long as it takes, until we defeat them."
During the event, Graham quipped that reading his whole speech would run afoul of the Geneva Conventions, but he darted around the conflict zones, taking some shots at other presidential candidates along the way. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the candidate furthest from Graham on the ideological scale when it comes to the United States' role in the world, was dubbed the one Republican who could cut a worse deal with the Iranian government over nuclear weapons than President Barack Obama.
But on this day, Graham was at his most strident on what to do in Syria against both President Bashar Assad and the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
"We never fix Assad unless he goes," Graham said. "The caliphate mainly exists in Syria. It would be a large military operation."
Graham envisions a U.S.-led multinational force, with significant contributions of both blood and treasure from countries in the region.
"Ten thousand — probably us because I don't want to lose. You're going to need a large force. There are ... 30,000 or 40,000 ISIL guys, only God knows how many. I'm not looking for a fair fight here," Graham said. "I'm looking for a large regional army where the vast majority would be Arabs and Turks, but I fear if they go in without us they could actually lose."
When Graham asked Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter at a Tuesday Armed Services hearing, "What's more likely — President Obama leaves office in 2017 or Assad goes first?" Carter replied, "Well, I certainly hope it's Assad."
The scope of U.S. involvement in the world envisioned by Graham — both militarily and through programs such as building schools for girls in Afghanistan and working to eradicate HIV in Africa — are not cheap. And his bluntness about long-term budgetary challenges might be one reason he has barely registered in many GOP polls.
Graham reiterated he would would work with Democrats on overhauling entitlement programs, including what he called "a revenue component."
"Sequestration has to be replaced, and you also should replace non-defense spending, too," Graham said, highlighting reductions that would come to the FBI and other domestic security agencies if Congress doesn't act.
For Graham, it's a big week for foreign policy, which is the arena in which he seems to think he can make the most persuasive case to conservative voters, even if polls show him getting little traction (and could perhaps block him from the early TV debates). On Tuesday morning, he was among the Armed Services Committee members prodding Carter and other members of Pentagon brass on the fight against ISIS and on Tuesday afternoon he was working to advance his State Department spending bill.
While that bill reflects many of his priorities, he appears unlikely to get his way on restricting expanded U.S. operations in Cuba, including the reopening of the embassy that was announced earlier this month.
"I like the House language far better than what we were able to do," Graham told CQ Roll Call Tuesday, pointing to more restrictive language on U.S.-Cuba policy on the other side of the Capitol. "We just didn't have the votes, in my view, to get the language of the House."
He said he was considering offering an amendment, calling Obama's decision to reopen the embassy a "bad idea." Republican and Democratic members of the Appropriations Committee said the outcome of such a vote could depend on Republicans who have been supportive of expanding trade with the island country.
Graham will celebrate his 60th birthday Thursday by advancing that State-Foreign Operations measure through the full committee before departing for a weekend campaign swing through the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, where he's scheduled to appear at a winery, a tavern, a country store and yes, even a town dump.
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