Lindsey Graham photo

Remarks to the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC

July 08, 2015

I would like to thank the Atlantic Council for hosting me.

Today's event comes while the United States is at a crossroads.? We have had six years of failed leadership under President Barack Obama, and he shows no signs of changing course. As recently as Monday of this week, he claimed that our strategy against ISIL is working and that we're more prepared to deal with major attacks against the homeland. The president constantly oversells our successes and minimizes the threats that our nation faces. There is no coherent strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL, and there are more radical Islamic groups with the capacity and desire to strike our homeland than at any time since 9-11. Our defenses are being overwhelmed by the number of threats. And as the threats grow we continue to cut our budget and embrace strategies that are designed not to destroy ISIL but to pass this problem along to the next president. Simply put, President Obama's foreign policy has been a disaster, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was one of its chief architects.

The upcoming presidential election presents Americans with a real choice. For a few, turning our backs to the world as Rand Paul is proposing may be attractive. Others may want to continue down the Obama-Clinton path of appeasement in an effort to avoid conflict.? If so, Hillary Clinton is your clear choice.? I would argue that both of these options pose a great threat to the American homeland, and I am here to present another path. One in which we can restore our relationship with friends like Israel, bolster allies such as those in NATO, and let foes like Iran know that when an American president speaks, they need to be taken seriously.? A path in which we achieve security through strength.

Ronald Reagan pursued a path of peace through strength. He understood that peace could be achieved by standing strong in the face of Soviet expansionism, building our capabilities at all levels, and recognizing the power of mutually assured destruction. His determination in pursuit of this path led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, this approach assumed a rationality that is lacking in Radical Islam. I have come to conclude we can never achieve peace through strength with this ideology. It is driven by a religious doctrine that does not embrace coexistence, compromise, or tolerance. They are offering a glorious death to their followers. We must offer a hopeful life instead.

While we may not enjoy peace with Radical Islam, if we purse the path that I am outlining, we can achieve security. We can build a coalition that will lead to the defeat of ISIL and the forces of Radical Islam.

Simply put, we have to provide superior capability, overwhelming capacity and, most important of all, determined will. These are the elements of any successful foreign policy. And yet, in the Obama-Clinton era, we are lacking each one.

We have reduced our capability through blind and insane defense cuts under sequestration. We have diminished our capacity to secure our nation with an older and smaller fighting force at a time when we need a modern and robust military more than ever.

As for determined will, President Obama — with Hillary Clinton by his side —consistently blinked in the face of grave threats. He led from behind during the Arab Spring. In Syria he failed to enforce redlines, provide no-fly zones, or arm the Free Syrian Army. He responded passively to Putin's land grab in Ukraine, and prematurely withdrew from Iraq. Throughout their tenure, Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton have consistently failed to understand the nature of the threats we face, develop comprehensive strategies for securing our nation, or confront our enemies head-on. They have acquiesced to our adversaries and alienated our allies. They have made critical decisions based not on circumstances on the ground, but on political calculations. The net effect of this approach has been to embolden the forces of violence and chaos, to disquiet the forces of security and stability, and ultimately leave our nation less secure. All of these failures have created fallout that will take decades to clean up.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the resurgence of Iran.? I truly believe that Iran with a nuclear capability is the greatest threat the world will know in my lifetime. We are seemingly moments away from the completion of a nuclear deal that will make Iran flush with cash at the start and leave Iran a nuclear threshold state at the end.? As recently as two years ago, Tehran was suffocating under a sanctions regime that Congress forced the Administration to support.? As Iran's currency tumbled, Tehran was forced to the nuclear negotiating table.? Backed by UN Security Council resolutions, the Administration entered into negotiations with a mandate to dismantle Iran's nuclear program.? Now at the end of the negotiations, we have backed off almost every single one of our negotiating objectives.

From the very start of the emerging agreement, Iran will immediately receive over a hundred billion dollars in sanctions relief as frozen assets are allowed back into Tehran.? While the deal is in place, they will not be subject to anytime, anywhere inspections or be required to come clean on the Possible Military Dimensions of their nuclear program.? And at the end of the agreement, Iran will be a nuclear threshold state, without being forced to change their behavior for a day.

During these negotiations, Iran became strengthened and emboldened, now effectively controlling the capitals in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.? In the words of the newest State Department Country reports on Terrorism, "in 2014, Iran's state sponsorship of terrorism worldwide remained undiminished…including support for Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, Lebanese Hezbollah, and various groups in Iraq and throughout the Middle East."? The report goes on: "Iran continued to provide arms, financing, training, and the facilitation of primarily Iraqi Shia and Afghan fighters to support the Assad regime's brutal crackdown that has resulted in the deaths of at least 191,000 people in Syria."? Keep in mind, this is the "new" Iran under the "moderate leadership" of President Rouhani.

If Iran was able to do this under the yoke of sanctions, imagine what the region will look like as capital flows into the country.

A good deal with Iran would be a game changer in the Middle East, but that deal must include anytime, anywhere inspections, sanctions relief only AFTER Iran complies with the terms of a deal, and restrictions on their nuclear activities until Iran has a demonstrated change in behavior.?We must also get a full accounting of the Possible Military Dimensions of Iran's past nuclear activity. Only by gaining a clear picture of the full scope of Iran's past actions will we be able to put in place an effective inspections regime.

A bad deal, however, will increase the likelihood of war with Iran. It will dramatically raise the threat level against the State of Israel, lead to a regional arms race, and enrich terrorist regimes in the region. An emboldened and strengthened Iran is not just a grave threat to the region, but poses a direct threat to the United States as well. Because of its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, who toppled the pro-U.S. government in Sanaa, we have lost our ability to monitor Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the world's most lethal groups that aspires to hit our homeland.

By propping up Assad and prolonging the brutal conflict in Syria, Iran is putting unsustainable pressure on Lebanon and, even more distressingly, on Jordan. If the King of Jordan were to fall, the consequences for the security of the region and the U.S. would be incalculable. It would increase the reach and capacity of ISIL to a staggering degree, creating a terrorist launching pad against the U.S. that we can hardly imagine.

These are the consequences of Iran's rising influence in the region. And yet, the brink of an enriched and empowered Iran is precisely where the Obama-Clinton Doctrine has put us today.

The resurgence of Radical Islam in the region further threatens our interests both at home and abroad. And it is further evidence of the Obama-Clinton failures. While this scourge was far from eradicated in 2009, it had lost its momentum. The surge in Iraq was a military and political success, putting al Qaeda on the run with the strong engagement of Sunni leaders in Anbar Province. ISIL was a small force with minimal reach. The moderates who make up the vast majority of the Muslim world were steadily reclaiming the initiative throughout the Middle East. Those hard-fought gains were no accident of history. They were achieved through the enormous sacrifices of U.S. troops. Their undoing is no accident either, but comes as a direct result of President Obama's refusal to heed the advice of military commanders in 2011, choosing instead to fulfill a campaign promise and withdraw every last U.S. service member.

When President Obama made this decision, the warning signs were already evident. In April of 2011, I begged and pleaded with the White House to leave behind 10-15,000 troops. Otherwise, as I said then, "Iraq could go to hell."? I also said that, "this is a defining moment in the future of Iraq… and in my view they are going down the wrong road."? Through the summer of 2011, I advocated that President Obama reverse course, and on the day of the announcement lamented that "this decision has set in motion events that will come back to haunt our country."? I wish I had been wrong.

As consequential as that blunder was, it is hardly the only one to blame for the current state of the Middle East. Again ignoring the dire warnings of military experts, this Administration refused to confront Bashar Assad when the Syrian people began rising up against him and to bolster the moderate groups who tried to take him on. I and many of my colleagues in Congress again called for decisive U.S. action, including no-fly zones and defensive arms for moderate rebels. Again these calls were ignored. Worse still, the Administration drew a red line on the use of chemical weapons, and then refused to follow through when Assad crossed that line. The result has been a security and humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions, a failing state-in-waiting that ISIL has adeptly and viciously exploited. These twin vacuums in Syria and Iraq created a single battle space from which ISIL has exerted its authority, seized oil revenues, and inflicted unspeakable horrors, especially against women, girls, and religious minorities. This is the very base of operations from which a devastating attack could be launched against the United States by seasoned fighters holding Western passports.

What's more, the failures of the Obama-Clinton doctrine are rippling out far beyond the Middle East. The world has witnessed their crisis of leadership and is acting accordingly. Vladimir Putin has seized Crimea, continues to fuel an ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and menaces other U.S. allies along his border. China is thwarting freedom of navigation through vital sea lanes in the Asia Pacific region and attempting to unilaterally impose its will in territorial disputes. Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram are declaring their allegiance to ISIL and wreaking havoc on African soil. Latin America is learning that nations like Cuba who flagrantly disregard human rights and the rule of law get more attention and engagement than those who steadily work to build democratic and free-market institutions. And in cyberspace, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea launch assault after assault on our military and commercial assets, deeply compromising our security and our global economic competitiveness.

These blunders and miscalculations have created a perfect storm and brought us to a point of crisis. I am running for President because I have a path forward.

First, I would walk away from the disastrous Iranian nuclear negotiations, and return to the table only when Iran is prepared to accept a deal that puts an end to its nuclear weapons program and its support of global terrorism.

Next, I would present a clear strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL, drive Assad from power, and re-establish stability in the Middle East. It is imperative that we look at Iraq and Syria as a single battle space. We cannot stabilize Iraq without a strategy to deal with the ISIL safe havens in Syria. And we cannot deal with Syria while Bashar al Assad remains in power.

The current force structure of approximately 3500 U.S. troops in Iraq is inadequate to the task. According to Gen. Keane, one of the chief architects of the 2007 surge, we will need roughly 10,000 U.S. troops to once again change the tide of battle in Iraq. These additional forces would allow us to train and advise Iraqi troops at the battalion level, making them far more likely to stay in the fight. With the increased numbers, we could deploy attack helicopters to give the Iraqi army a substantial advantage over ISIL. These numbers would also allow us to put in place robust special operations capability to apply constant pressure on ISIL's leadership morning, noon, and night. They would never communicate or move without being subject to being captured or killed. I would also supply better arms and equipment to the Kurds so that they could project force from the north, supplementing our efforts in the south.

When it comes to Syria, where the majority of ISIL fighters reside, I would lead the effort to create a regional force with troops from Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other willing nations to go in on the ground and pull the Caliphate up by its roots. No regional force will take this task on until we commit to removing Assad, the puppet of Iran. The defeat of ISIL and removal of Assad must be joint goals and they must be achieved with regional troops and regional resources. U.S. forces would only be made available to provide targeted capabilities that our regional partners lack.

Without this comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIL and drive out Assad, the region will fall into greater and greater chaos as the humanitarian crisis spreads. According to U.S. government reports, there are now more Syrian children attending Lebanese schools than Lebanese children. The situation is especially dire in Jordan, one of our closest allies, which has been overwhelmed with refugees. The status quo in Syria jeopardizes the stability of our friends, prevents us from achieving our goals in Iraq, and constitutes a strategic win for Iran.

My long history in the region has taught me that failure to choose is a choice in and of itself. That hoping the problem gets better seldom works. That the price of intervention has to be weighed against the price of sitting on the sidelines. In the case of ISIL and other Radical Islamic groups, our current strategy is allowing them to get stronger and putting us at risk of a serious attack on our homeland. The time has come for the strategy to change and it must change soon. We all make mistakes. The key is to learn from those mistakes.

President Obama is not the first president to make mistakes, and he won't be the last. President Bush and his supporters in Congress — of which I was one — made mistakes as well. The United States invaded Iraq based on faulty intelligence. We learned the hard way that de-Baathification was the wrong approach. As the insurgency in Iraq grew, we realized that we needed to change the strategy. So we did. The architects of the Surge recognized we needed more troops and we needed to engage with Sunni sheiks. So we did. And it succeeded. Iraq on the eve of President Obama's disastrous withdrawal was stable. The very difficult work of political reconciliation had begun. We made some mistakes and then fixed them. President Obama, by contrast, simply doubles down. As President, I would bring the kind of seasoned leadership that learns, adapts, and overcomes.

As for Putin, I would immediately and dramatically increase natural gas exports to our European allies to undercut his greatest source of leverage in the region. I would arm the Ukrainian military with defensive weapons and impose even more crippling sanctions on Moscow, including asset freezes targeting Putin and his cronies. And I would inject a much-needed dose of strong American leadership into NATO. We must refocus the alliance. We must firm up the resolve of our European friends to commit the necessary military might to stop Putin from threatening and destabilizing the region.

As President, I would also combine the hard power of our military might with the soft power of development and diplomacy. As former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Mattis told Congress, if we fail to fund our diplomatic and international assistance initiatives, we better be prepared to buy guys like him more bullets. Our foreign assistance programs make up just 1% of the federal budget. But they punch far above their weight. For an amount of money that is less than a rounding error in total spending, the U.S. taxpayers are buying something priceless: greater security. Just as Iran's support for terrorism in the Middle East is a great threat to us, our support for peace and prosperity in the region is a great benefit to us. What happens there and what happens here are directly linked.

Educating a young girl in a remote region of Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan does more to improve our security than dropping a 500-pound bomb. Investing in the future of young men and women in the developing world provides a hopeful alternative to those who live where Radical Islam seeks to dominate, recruit, and wreak havoc.

Alleviating humanitarian crises and enhancing the capacity of partner nations to bring security and prosperity to their people makes us safer. It diminishes the potential for terrorist safe havens. It empowers our allies to be more effective partners in the struggle against violent extremism. Prevailing in this struggle will take sustained partnerships in the region and generational involvement on the development side.

There are two historical events taking place simultaneously throughout the Middle East. The first is the demand for better governance and social justice by women, the young, and the disenfranchised. This movement, commonly called the Arab Spring, has been hijacked, but it is still very much alive. The second event is a fight for the heart and soul of Islam, with Al Qaeda, ISIL, and other Radical Islamic groups on one side, and the overwhelming majority of the Muslim faithful on the other. It is incumbent upon us to recognize these historic moments and side with the demands for better governance and social justice, and by those within the faith who are willing to fight radical Islam. The outcome of these struggles will affect our national security and our way of life for generations to come. We must provide capacity where we find the will to bring about a more representative and peaceful Middle East.

We cannot accomplish this without the necessary resources, so as President, I would end sequestration. I would rebuild our military, intelligence, law enforcement, and international assistance capacity that has been devastated by senseless cuts. I would ensure the tools of both hard and soft power are funded at a level that keeps our homeland safe.

Once again, this is about ensuring we have the capability, the capacity, and the will to secure our nation. The superior capability of the world's best fighting force. The overwhelming capacity of a robust national defense and development agenda. And the determined will to demonstrate to friends and foes alike that we are prepared to use every tool in our arsenal to confront our enemies and turn the tide against them.

This focus on capability, capacity, and will would be the centerpiece of my plan as Commander in Chief. It is the focus we need in order to change course as a nation and secure our homeland. It is the focus that I would urge President Obama to bring to the remainder of his presidency. January 20, 2017 is still many months away, with grave threats and key decisions on the horizon.

Afghanistan is a critical decision point. The president's decision to withdraw down to 1000 U.S. forces by the end of 2016 is a disaster in the making. A Kabul-centric force of this size will not allow us an effective counter terrorism mission against radical organizations that reside along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This mission alone requires well over 1000 troops to be effective. Losing a counter-terrorism and intelligence presence in Afghanistan would be political and military malpractice. If we continue on the course set by President Obama, we will be repeating the same mistakes made in Iraq. As president, I would leave in place the current force of 9,800 until conditions on the ground warrant our withdrawal. As president, every military decision would be based on conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timelines. To do otherwise would be a direct threat to our homeland and would squander all we have fought for in Afghanistan after more than a decade of sacrifice.

Finally, as President, 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. 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.

This has always been a dangerous world. But the Obama-Clinton world is contending with grave dangers of its own making. Our nation and our global standing have been badly weakened after two terms of this agenda. We absolutely cannot afford a third. I am running to be President of the United States to put an end to the Obama-Clinton doctrine.

I am ready to be Commander in Chief on day one. I have a clear strategy to prevent a nuclear Iran, to confront ISIL and Radical Islam, to drive Bashar Assad from power, and to re-establish stability in the Middle East. I will restore our relationship with the State of Israel. I will engage with our Arab allies to achieve a regional solution. I will reinvigorate NATO and shore up the resolve of our European allies to develop a strategy to take on Putin. I will make it clear to our friends and our enemies that the U.S. once again has the capability, capacity, and will to be the world's greatest force for security. We have paid a dear price for leading from behind. I intend to return the United States to its rightful place.

NOTE: As prepared for delivery.

Lindsey Graham, Remarks to the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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