HH: I begin with United States Senator Lindsey Graham from the great state of South Carolina, candidate for president as well. Senator Graham, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
LG: Well, thank you for having me.
HH: I’ve got to begin by asking you about the political story before we move to Syria, which is the international story. The political story is your colleague, Trey Gowdy, is being touted by many as a draftable future House Majority Leader. He’s not issued a Shermanesque statement, though he told Robert Costa he’s not running. What do you think of Trey Gowdy as Majority Leader in the House? You served there.
LG: I think he’d be a wonderful choice for any job you could pick for Trey. Trey Gowdy is probably smart enough not to take the job.
HH: (laughing) But would the cause of…
LG: Your best day is your first day in that job. After that, everybody begins to hate you.
HH: Would the cause of conservative governance be advanced with Trey Gowdy as the Majority Leader under a new Speaker McCarthy?
LG: Absolutely. I think he’s a good spokesman for the conservative cause. But in terms of trying to govern that group over there, I don’t know if he would survive. But yeah, Trey’s just a talented man. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. He’s a natural born leader, but I think he really does not want to do this.
HH: Well, drafts are drafts. We’ll see what happens. Let’s turn to the terrible story, which is John Kerry’s statement on Syria this morning. I can’t find coherence here, Senator Graham, can you?
LG: Well, let’s just don’t limit it to this statement. And no, I mean, I can’t find coherence in Obama’s foreign policy. What did he say on Syria?
HH: He said asked whether there’s an opportunity to use Russia and Iran’s influence in Syria to halt Assad’s use of barrel bombs, he said absolutely. He raised, the issue, he said, in meetings with both Russia and Iran. “They are both in position in exchange, perhaps, for something that we might do, they might decide to keep Assad from dropping barrel bombs.” It’s just nuts.
LG: You know, all I can say is that Secretary Kerry, I don’t question his motives, I just question his judgment. President Obama’s foreign policy is in freefall. To try to spin this to a good news story is beyond delusional. There is nothing good between a Russian-Syrian-Iran-Iraq alliance. This is a nightmare for U.S. foreign policy. It is terrible for our Arab allies. It means ISIL can recruit against Assad forever. It means the Russians have a foothold. The three biggest winners on Obama’s watch in terms of foreign policy have been the Iranians, the Russians, and radical Sunni Islamists. This is an incredible construct Secretary Kerry is pushing.
HH: He also said, and I quote, there was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united that it needs to be secular, that ISIL needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition. That actually, I translate, shorter version, Iran’s going to run everything, and we’re going to just need a decent interval before they attack Israel. Am I right?
LG: Well, I can’t think of a more secular power than Iran. When you think of secular governments, you can’t help but think of the Ayatollah.
LG: I mean, are you pulling my leg? Did he really say that?
HH: No, I am reading to you from the Reuters report, because it is so unbelievable.
LG: So Iran is for a unified Syria, secular in nature. Russia is wherever the mandate takes the Syrian people, they will live with the outcome of free and fair elections. This is insane to think that the Russians are for a unified Syria wherever the mandate of the people takes them is okay with the Russians, and that Iran is supporting a secular Syria. This is nuts.
HH: Secretary Kerry described President Obama’s Vladimir Putin meeting as, “genuinely constructive, very civil, with a very candid discussion.”
LG: (laughing) Well, I guess he didn’t hit him. That’s the good news. The bottom line is this is a very big shift in Mid-East policy all to our detriment. Russia supporting Assad means that the war in Syria never ends, because the Sunni extremists have a recruiting opportunity for the ages. He’s an Alawite associated with Iran, and now he has Russian backing. So I thought we were going to get a dividend from this deal with Iran? John Kerry told us it would create an opportunity to have Syria in a different place, because Iran and Russia would help us. John Kerry, they’re not helping us. They’re propping up the mortal enemy of the Syrian people, the magnet of Sunni extremists. Our president said Assad should go. The Russian president has sent tanks and airplanes. Guess who’s winning this contest?
HH: Now yesterday, soon-to-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy gave a speech in which he supported a no-fly zone, which I interpreted as meaning that we would bomb Syrian jets on the ground if they tried to take off. That means Russian pilots, doesn’t it, Lindsey Graham? This is becoming, you know, a great power conflict now.
LG: Well, a no-fly zone could mean that if you cross this line, you’ll get shot down. It doesn’t mean that you can’t take off. It just means you can’t cross this line. But here’s what’s happened now. Our president says Assad must go, because he’s massacred 250,000 Syrians. They will never accept him as their legitimate leader. No one in the region will accept him, because he’s a puppet of Iran. So now we have the Russian president moving in military force, fighter planes, helping Assad dramatically, making it much harder for the regime to be pushed out. Our stated goal of regime change, replacing Assad, has not been stymied because of the Russian involvement on behalf of Assad, and we’re not doing a damn thing about it. We’re having constructive talks with a country whose propped up the person that we say must go. How’s that constructive?
HH: It isn’t. I’m old enough to remember that the great triumph of Henry Kissinger was the ejection of the Russians…
LG: 1973. Of Egypt. He flipped Eygpt. He flipped Egypt. They kicked Russians out of the Mid-East. But look at the triumphants here. You’ve got Russian, and you’ve got Iran, you’ve got Assad’s regime. So Putin goes to the United Nations and scolds the world for not helping Assad. Our president goes to the United Nations and says he’s a dictator, a mass murderer. We’re not respected anymore. I wonder how the Arabs feel today? I wonder how our Arab allies feel knowing that Russia and Iran are working in concert with Assad? I wonder how they feel?
HH: Now Senator Graham, let’s take this over into the political side. Earlier today, Jake Tapper reported that Jeb Bush’s donors are beginning to panic. Mark Leibovich is coming up after the break to talk about his profile on Donald Trump in the Sunday New York Times. The world is on fire. I’m not sure that the Republican primary race reflects that, yet. Do you think it does?
LG: Oh, well, I think the debate we had with CNN was the closest thing to a discussion we’ve had, and it was kind of shallow, quite frankly. The world is on fire. Russia has now formed an alliance with Iran. Assad seems to be stabilizing, not being pushed out, and none of us are talking about what would we do. Nobody’s talked about the $18 trillion dollar debt. So I hope we can up our game in terms of candidates to talk about things that matter. Coming on your show is a good exercise for all of us, because you ask us what would you do differently than President Obama? What I would do is I would not tell the Russian president that I look forward to working with you, not to make sure they don’t drop barrel bombs. I would tell the Russian president you’re doing something that’s completely unacceptable to the stability of the region and the world at large. This will not stand. I will not accept your intervention on behalf of Assad. You’re backing the wrong horse.
HH: Should we take out those planes, Senator Graham?
LG: I think we should do whatever is necessary to destroy ISIL and push Assad out. I think you need a regional army. I don’t think indigenous forces exist that can be trained to the level necessary to destroy ISIL inside of Syria and push Assad out. So I would turn to the region, and if I were president, try to get up a regional force that has two goals in mind – destroying ISIL, which is a threat to all of us, and pushing Assad out, because he’s the magnet for this war, and he’s a puppet of Iran.
HH: But doesn’t that regional force risk a confrontation with Russia now? Isn’t that like a regional force in Ukraine?
LG: They’re welcome, they are welcome to fight for Assad if they’d like. I would just lay that on the table.
HH: How, so you…that’s big, actually. I’ll leave it there.
LG: Yeah, you’re welcome to fight for this guy if that’s what you want. If you want to engage on behalf of Bashar Assad, you’re welcome to do so. I’d advise you not, because his presence in Syria is beyond destabilizing. He cannot be allowed to stay. Syria will never repair itself. And Syria needs to come to an end on our terms, not Russia’s terms. The Syrian people decide if Russia can stay. I’m not telling Russia they don’t have a place in Syria. I would tell Russia the Syrian people determine what that place is, not the force of arms.
HH: Do you think a regional force would be willing to run the risk of engaging Russian advisors?
LG: If they had an American president they could rely upon. Here are our choices. Are you going to allow Russia to come in here and prop up Assad, which means the war never ends? The most likely 9/11 scenario comes from Syria, where a foreign jihadist flocking to the jihad in Syria to take down Assad established the caliphate with a Western passport comes back here to hit us. It is the launching pad for the next 9/11. Jordan and Lebanon are going to be victims of this war in Syria. What Putin’s doing is making the war in Syria last longer, and being more lethal to us. It has to come to an end. The people in Syria need to reconcile, and Assad has to go, or the war never ends. It’s that simple.
HH: Senator Graham, we’re out of time.
LG: Do you disagree?
HH: But I’ve got to, you just said that the last debate was kind of shallow. Was that a hit at the panelists there?
HH: Okay, just checking. Just checking.
LG: No (laughing)
HH: (laughing) Senator Lindsey Graham, great to talk to you. Thank you, as always.
End of interview.