In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Republican Senator and US presidential candidate Lindsey Graham.
Foreign policy is a long game—a calculus that should always supersede the whimsical proclivities of election year politics or petty score settling. Unfortunately, this has never really been the case. Over the years, Republicans and Democrats alike have polluted the foreign policy lexicon to score cheap political points at the expense of long-term strategies in places like Iraq and Syria.
However, within this vortex of confusing policy conundrums and complex decision-making, there has always been the steady hand of Republican Senator, and now presidential hopeful, Lindsey Graham.
Senator Graham has been described as many things over the years—war hawk, interventionist, realist—but one thing is for certain: He has a detailed plan to address some of the most challenging foreign policy issues of our times, which is more than what most politicians are ever able to claim.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Senator Lindsey Graham about Russia, Iraq, Iran, the Islamic State and what the US can do to regain the initiative in the Middle East.
Landon Shroder: With Russia engaged in an air, land and sea campaign in Syria, along with the intelligence sharing agreement that has just been put into place between Iraq, Syria and Iran, has Moscow completely outmaneuvered the US in the Middle East? Is US foreign policy in danger of collapsing?
Lindsey Graham: Russia has not so much outmaneuvered us, but they came up with a strategy that is beneficial to their interests, and we have a hap-hazard strategy. We talk about degrading and destroying ISIL [Islamic State], but there is no plan to destroy ISIL—bombing ISIL is not going to destroy them. We talk about replacing [President Bashar al] Assad, but we’ve never taken Assad on because [President Barack] Obama did not want to disrupt the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal. He knew if he pushed hard against Assad, Iran and Russia would be mad.
We’re captured by this official Iran deal, and we have a president that just gives lip service to the things that you need to do. You got a Russian president who wants to prop up Assad, who is a proxy of Russia, a puppet of Iran, and he is willing to commit ground forces, airpower and he has created a regional alliance between the Iranians, Hezbollah, [the] Syrian army and some Russian troops.
They are going after the people threatening Assad—and winning. We are sitting on the sidelines watching the region become more influenced by Russia and Iran. President Obama’s foreign policy is a complete, abject [and] miserable failure.
Shroder: So where does US foreign policy go from here? How do we regain the initiative in Iraq and Syria given this new axis that has formed against our policies?
Graham: Here’s the good news for the United States. The region as a whole has aligned with us. The outliers are Syria and Iran. Every Arab capital wants the same two things we want: The destruction of ISIL, because they are a threat to their government and their people, and they want Assad gone because he is a proxy of Iran and the Russians.
With the right American leadership, you can form a regional alliance that has a lot more capabilities than Russia and Iran, and [then] really isolate them. A regional alliance between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt (all have air forces, all have armies) and we would form a regional alliance—90% the region, 10% US [and] we go in on the ground. We can’t find indigenous forces in Syria to train to destroy ISIL and really fight Assad. A regional alliance to counter the Russian and Iranian alliance and would destroy ISIL.
Shroder: How would we bring these nations together, especially Arab countries that have competing interests in a place like Syria?
Graham: It all starts with pushing out Assad. They are backing some of the extremist groups, trying to create a bulwark against Assad. So it all falls into place with American leadership. Without American leadership it will never happen.
Shroder: With Russia now engaging inside of Syria, is there ever going to be scope for the US to cooperate with Russia with regard to a joint strategy in fighting the Islamic State?
Graham: No, because the goal is not to destroy ISIL—they [Russians] could care less about what happens in the eastern part of Syria. Their goal is to prop up Assad. They’ll launch some airstrikes against ISIL, but their real goal is to destroy opposition to Assad.
Shroder: Is there going to be an opportunity for Russia to transition Assad out of power? Would that be an acceptable policy that the US could back—if the Russians could institute regime change, but not necessarily dismantle the government?
Graham: Russia wants to keep Assad in power, which they are using force of arms to accomplish, or replace him with another puppet. What I want is for the Syrian people to decide who leads their country. If Russia has a presence in Syria post-Assad, it will be up to the Syrians if they want to find a place for the Russians in Syria—that’s fine with me, as long as the Syrian people make that choice.
Shroder: In terms of fighting the Islamic State, you spoke of the need for US boots on the ground, which I am assuming would stage from Iraq. How would that look given the fact that the Shia militias have eclipsed the Iraqi security forces and would not accept such a deployment?
Graham: One, it would change the balance of power inside of Iraq. More American boots on the ground, if accepted by the Iraqi coalition government, which I think it would be, would neutralize the advantage the Shia militias have. It makes it more likely that the Sunni Arabs could pull away from ISIL in Anbar Province, [and] makes it more likely that the Kurds will help us in Mosul. It makes everything more likely and is a big blow to Iran.
Shroder: Is it a wise strategy to arm disparate factions inside Iraq? For instance, is arming the Sunni tribesmen or arming the Kurdish Peshmerga independent of the central government a policy worth exploring?
Graham: Yes. We have been training these Sunni Arabs. That is what led to the success of the surge and the Sons of Iraq; we are going to have to do it all over again. Eventually, we are going to have to have a coalition government. You are not going to be able to partition Iraq. Bottom line is the Sunni Arabs are not going to break or rely on the Shia militias for their security. The Sunni Arabs were aligned with the coalition we were a part of, and it worked before. But they are not going to break from ISIL and pin their hopes and dreams on a Shia-dominated, sectarian-dominated government in Baghdad.
Everyone went back to their sectarian corners after the withdrawal of the US forces—as the security deteriorated, people went back to their sectarian corners. You are going to have to do the surge all over again, this time with less American help.
Shroder: But by arming the different groups outside of the central government, doesn’t that undermine the credibility of the central government in Baghdad?
Graham: Right now, Baghdad in terms of arming the Kurds is mixed, and Iran has more influence today than they ever had before. There is no scenario where you take back Anbar Province without arming the tribes, period. Now, you are not arming them to the extent that they can take over Baghdad, but you are allowing them to more effectively fight ISIL and dislodge them from Anbar Province. Giving more military capacity to the Kurds helps us with ISIL in other problem areas, but we are not arming these people to the extent that we are going to have an invasion of Kurds in Baghdad. But you are going to have to bolster the alliances that we need.
The alliance in Anbar Province is the Sunni tribes with Iraqi security forces—not pin it on the Shia militias. In Mosul, the Kurds [and] Iraqi security forces working with us could dislodge ISIL from Mosul. This is going to be a very complicated endeavor, but those are the alliances. And when you throw the Shia militias in, you break apart the entire structure.
Shroder: I get that. I also spent seven years in Iraq, so I am quite invested in the country.
Graham: It is sad to see the progress just wasted, because it did work—the surge did work. They were working on the hydrocarbon law, the de-Baathification law, politics were moving forward in Baghdad. The security environment had transformed, and when we pulled out, that security vacuum was filled by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually turned into ISIL and [the] political progress stopped.
That was the warning everybody gave Obama: If you leave too soon everything falls apart. And it did, and it has to be rebuilt.
But the good news is that it can be rebuilt. The region is now looking for American leadership more than ever. There are opportunities for new alliances we did not have in 2009-2010.
Shroder: I was in Basra Province when the US pulled out, and we just woke up one morning and everyone was gone. You could sense the vacuum forming pretty much overnight.
Graham: Yeah, that is when JAM [Jaysh al-Mahdi] and all these guys moved in and became a sectarian militia-run area. Iraqi security forces are too Shia. That’s what [Nouri al] Maliki did—he basically destroyed the national army. The Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shia are going to have a loose confederation. You are not going to have a partitioned Iraq. The Sunni Arab nations are not going to allow anyone to give southern Iraq to Iran and that’s what happens with partition—the oil fields go to Iran, and I don’t agree with that.
Shroder: Do you think the US has enough legitimacy in the Middle East to still effectively shape regional events?
Graham: Not under Obama. I don’t think anyone is going to follow Obama, because he’s been seen basically doing a deal with Iran that does not help Middle Eastern turmoil. His willingness to withdraw all troops, drawing a red line with Assad and besides crossing it, he still stands—he’s [Obama] made us weak in the eyes of the region. I think his credibility as a leader in the world is almost zero.
Shroder: How do your policy positions on Iraq, Syria and the Islamic State differ right now from the rest of your Republican rivals? You seem to actually have a plan in place that is quite pragmatic.
Graham: I think the difference is knowledge and a plan versus talk, platitudes versus proposals. Understanding that more American ground components are needed in Iraq. There is not an indigenous force left to train that can destroy ISIL and push Assad out. I am willing to work at that with a regional approach to isolate Russia and Iran. That regional approach will have a military component, but be diplomatic too.
Just understanding the players and having spent time in Ramadi and Fallujah and understanding the tribes, having met with the tribal leaders—they all know me. Having been to Mosul several times, there is a level of understanding. I know all the Arab leaders. I know they would gladly align themselves with an American president they can rely upon, because Iran and ISIL [are] a threat.
So what I’ve got is a way forward that will lead to victory, and my goal is to destroy ISIL and change the Middle East for the better. The big difference in this race is the level of understanding.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.