Graham is a rare Republican who makes Romney seem conservative.
The senior senator from South Carolina announced the formation of an exploratory committee for 2016, Security Through Strength. He used the occasion to engage in threat inflation, Reagan revisionism and war demagoguery.
“Ronald Reagan famously said his goal was to have peace through strength,” Graham said. “In my view you could never have peace with radical Islam. They want to destroy us and our way of life, so peaceful coexistence is a nonstarter from their point of view, and quite frankly from my point of view.”
There’s so much wrong here. You can’t exactly make peace with al Qaeda or the Islamic State. But you can sometimes isolate and avoid them. But Graham isn’t just talking about jihadists. He’s interested in war with countries like Iran, Iraq and Syria. He believes that passing a congressional authorization of force will help diplomacy with Tehran.
Reagan believed in a strong military, but he used it sparingly: only one land war in eight years, which lasted just two days, and an abbreviated bombing campaign against Libya in response to a direct response to a terrorist attack. He ultimately did make peace with the Soviet Union, winning the Cold War while barely firing a shot.
It’s no coincidence that Graham’s committee drops the word “peace” but contains the word “strength.”
John McCain has called Graham his “illegitimate son.” When it comes to wanting U.S. boots on the ground in numerous foreign countries at once, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Like McCain, Graham is soft on economic conservatism and constitutionally limited government. McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts, Graham has flirted with violating Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge. To them, reflexive hawkishness is the only conservative litmus test. They appear to believe it is easier to secure Iraq’s borders than our own.
But let’s focus on the bright side. Republicans like Graham, John Bolton and Peter King now feel like they have to run for president to get their foreign-policy views heard in GOP debates.
That’s how Ron Paul felt back in 2007.
That’s not to say that the Republican Party’s foreign policy has been completely transformed. In fact, many Republicans haven’t learned enough lessons from the Iraq war and the George W. Bush years. Why else would primary voters consider nominating yet another Bush?
But Graham knows that voices like Rand Paul have more influence in the party than during previous presidential campaigns. He knows that if Paul runs and wins millions of votes, some Republicans will be tempted to win over his libertarian supporters.
McCain’s little buddy realizes that many Republicans like to sound vaguely hawkish without putting it into practice. Consider all the GOP elected officials who criticize President Obama on Russia or even Iran but don’t commit to doing much more than sanctions.
Chastising a liberal president for being weak is one thing. Committing to a 15-year occupation of Iran so soon after the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is quite another.
Even reliable hawks like Marco Rubio couldn’t be counted on to vote for military action in Syria.
By running for president, Graham would like to hold their feet to the fire — as in, “fire at will.” It’s worth remembering, however, that he has been wrong far more often than he’s been right.
The wars Graham supported in Iraq and Libya didn’t make us safer from radical Islam. They created political vacuums that unleashed jihadists. There was no Islamic State in Iraq before the war. Libya wasn’t described as Woodstock for terrorists.
Yet Graham wanted Congress to “shut up” about Libya. (Much like he wants people to “shut up” when they want a lawyer.) This included a House of Representatives that was controlled by Republicans at the time. He advocated as “many people on the ground as the Libyan people will welcome.”
At the beginning of the Iraq war Graham said, “If we’re there through 2009, something went wrong.” Then he argued that what went wrong is that we weren’t there in 2012.
So even though there is a lot more progress to make, be glad that the Republican Party has gone from nominating McCain in 2008 to giving a McCain clone 1 percent of the vote.
If Graham ends up doing better than that in 2016, something went wrong.