Sen. Lindsey Graham’s recent harsh criticism of President Barack Obama over national security is a marked change from the South Carolina Republican’s previous repeated praise of Obama’s performance.
Graham denied Friday that he’s been inconsistent, and he said his new linkage of the Boston Marathon bombings with the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is not tied to his re-election campaign next year, when he may face a formidable Republican primary challenger in his hard-red state.
“It has nothing to do with my election,” Graham told McClatchy. “I just see the whole Middle East going into turmoil. I don’t need these countries to fall apart to get me re-elected. I want to see this part of the world move forward, not backward.”
Graham is one of the leading voices on national security in Congress. A military lawyer who served active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he helped craft major legislation on the detention, interrogation and trial of terror suspects in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The biggest threats to U.S. national security are Iran’s development of nuclear arms and the possible presence of chemical weapons in war-torn Syria, he said Friday.
“Not leaving any troops behind in Iraq certainly sent the wrong message to Iran,” Graham said. “We see the deterioration in Iraq. The Afghan surge was necessary because we needed troops, but I’m very worried we will withdraw. The Libyan revolution was the first example of us leading from behind, and it’s caught up to us. We had a very tepid response in Egypt. I just see the Middle East turning sour here.”
Graham also said his criticism isn’t a result of three high-level national security confidants of his – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Pentagon chief Robert Gates and former CIA Director David Petraeus – all having left the Obama administration, giving him less access to its inner circles.
“He had a hard job,” Graham said of Obama. “I don’t want to minimize how tough it is to deal with all these issues. It’s fair to say that (former President George W.) Bush went in maybe too quick and didn’t think things through, but I think we’re being too timid now.”
And Graham said he supports the movement within the Obama administration toward arming Syrian rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
“It’s more of a problem today than six months ago, because there are about 6,000 radical jihadists fighting in Syria now, so providing the right weapons to the right people is more problematical, but I think it’s the responsible course to take,” Graham said. “My main goal now is to get a commitment from the Syrian opposition to allow the international community to come in and secure the chemical weapons. If we don’t bring this thing to an end, we’re going to have chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands.”
In neighboring Libya, though, Graham had warned in March 2011 against sending arms to rebels, saying they might fall into the wrong hands. Later that year he accused Obama of “leading from behind” in Libya and urged more direct U.S. intervention.
Graham acknowledged Friday that his position changed on Libya after he visited that country in late September 2011, five weeks after dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown by a popular uprising and went into hiding. Gadhafi was captured and killed the following month.
“I had never been over there to see who the opposition was,” he said. “At that time, I really didn’t know.”
For much of Obama’s first term, Graham described Clinton, Gates and Petraeus as a great national security team, praised U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, backed the military surge in Afghanistan and shared a gleeful midnight call with Vice President Joe Biden – Graham is a friend from Biden’s Senate days – over the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden by a Navy SEAL team.
Graham, though, did a sharp pivot after the Benghazi assault that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, accusing Obama and his aides of giving false accounts of the attack and covering up details.
Despite his respect for Clinton, Graham said Friday that the State Department under her turned down four requests for beefed-up security at the Benghazi consulate.
“There was a bias not to have a large American footprint,” he said. “It was kind of wanting to be the anti-Bush.”
Graham has intensified his criticism of Obama in recent days, linking the Boston Marathon bombings last month with the Benghazi assault and saying U.S. national security has deteriorated on the president’s watch.
The senator’s jab sparked a dismissive response from Obama just Tuesday.
“Mr. Graham is not right on this issue, although I’m sure it generated some headlines,” Obama told reporters at a White House news conference.
Even while jousting with Obama over national security, Graham has cooperated with him on other fronts.
At Obama’s request, Graham organized a March 6 dinner the president hosted at the White House with 12 Republican senators, among them Graham, Obama’s 2008 White House election foe Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
And Graham is among the eight senators who last month introduced sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation’s patchwork immigration system, an initiative that many Republican activists oppose because it would create a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States even as it stiffens border controls.
When it comes to Obama, Graham has switched gears before.
In 2008, the second-term senator campaigned tirelessly with McCain around the country during the Arizonan’s unsuccessful run against Obama.
Yet, after having criticized Obama for months from a position as a McCain surrogate or at his side, Graham advised Obama on foreign policy when the former senator from Illinois became president-elect.