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Senator Lindsey Graham On Debate Strategy, Obama Strategy, And GOP Electoral Strategy

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The audio:

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The transcript:

HH: I’m joined by Dan Balz, who’s been co-hosting with me throughout the day, and now by United States Senator Lindsey Graham, who will be on the stage tomorrow night again facing my relentless questioning, Senator Graham. I hope you’re ready for that.

LG: I have a drone just in case I need it. Yes, I’m ready.

HH: (laughing) All right, now Senator, that’s a lighthearted way to ask a very, very, very serious question. Did the San Bernardino attack change this race in any way that Paris had not already done so?

LG: Well, it brought it close to our shores, and it made us think more about what’s already in our backyard. I think it highlighted whether you’re going to fight the war in their backyard or our backyard. And more than Paris, it brought that concept home. You’ve got to fight them over there, because they’re coming here in many different ways.

HH: Now did it increase, in your mind, the need to focus on how to keep them out? And your reaction to Donald Trump’s proposal that simply keep them all out?

LG: Oh, no, I mean, what it did it just told us we may have a hole in our fiancé visa system. But what Donald Trump did was the single biggest mistake any politician could make running for president, is to declare war on the faith itself. The only way we can be safe is to partner with people in Islam who reject the ideology. ISIL wants a war between the West and Islam. What we want to do is partner with the 90% of the people in Islam who reject radical Islam. And his comment about banning all Muslims helped the enemy and made it hard to form partnerships we desperately need.

DB: Senator, it’s Dan Balz joining with the questioning tonight.

LG: Hey, Dan.

DB: How are you doing?

LG: Good. Can you imagine being the king of Jordan and the president of Egypt responding after you’d heard that, we’re going to ban all Muslims from coming to America?

DB: Well, here’s my question. There’s a majority of Republicans agree with Donald Trump, and based on the Monmouth poll today, his numbers have actually gone up a bit since that happened. How do you explain that?

LG: Well, I think a majority of Republicans believe that what he’s saying makes us safe, when in actually it’s the worst possible thing he could do to put us at risk. I think most of us who have been to the region know that this is a religious war between radicals and the vast majority of people in the faith. And our job is to empower those who reject this radical ideology, partner with Egypt, Jordan and people in the Islamic world that will help us keep America safe and also destroy the radical Islamic movement that is a threat to them. I don’t need a poll to tell me this. I’ve been there 36 times. This is the single biggest mistake anybody’s made running for president yet.

HH: Do you think he helped the enemy?

LG: Totally. What does the enemy want to do? They want to create fear. They want the far right French party to win. They want to create a conflict between the West and Islam to try to bring people over to their way. They want this to be between the world and Islam. What we want it to be is between radicals, a small percentage, and the rest of the world, including people in the faith. Yes, he helped the enemy.

HH: Now Senator Graham, today, President Obama went to the Pentagon today. He gave a short press conference in which he discussed a series of successful attacks on senior ISIS and ISIL leaders. Was that an adequate to the moment response by the President? Has he done enough?

LG: What he’s doing is trying to continue the strategy that’s never going to work. I just got back two weeks ago yesterday from my 36th trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. The air campaign is having tactical success, but ISIL has now moved into Libya. He’s not trying to destroy ISIL. You need a ground component to do that. He’s trying to get out of town. So what the President did today was basically reinforce a failed strategy. He’s not going to embrace a ground component larger in size in Iraq, a regional army necessary to go into Syria. So really, it was heartbreaking to see that he’s doubling down on the same old policies that are going to lead to another 9/11.

DB: Senator, he said also today that there has been progress made on the ground against ISIL there, and that they are being, I don’t think he used the word contained today, but he indicated that there have been some successes on the ground there.

LG: (laughing)

DB: Do you simply disagree with that? Or do you think that even if that’s the case, it’s not enough?

LG: Well, there have been some tactical successes. We’re about to take Ramadi back from ISIL. There are 300 fighters in the city center. But here’s what he’s not telling us. The Shiia militia cleared out around Ramadi. The Iraqi Army is going to have to go in, because the Shiia militia will be violently rejected. The ground component most effective inside of Iraq are the Shiia militias controlled by Iran. That force can never liberate Mosul. The Kurds feel very alienated. The tactical successes are real, but there is no strategy. There is no Iraqi Army that’s less sectarian than Shiia militias that can go up to Mosul. And inside of Syria, Dan, we’re training the PYG. It’s a Kurdish force that has no desire to go into Raqqa, the capital of the caliphate, an Arab town. So there is no ground component inside Syria to destroy the caliphate. There are tactical successes, but no strategy to destroy the caliphate, no ground component inside of Iraq or Syria that can do the job. In that regard, the President’s being incredibly misleading.

HH: Senator Graham, it’s Hugh again. I think you were the one who told me this, that the Kurdish Army will never be an expeditionary force. They seem to have achieved some significant success in Syria. Are you changing your opinion on how dynamic the Kurdish forces can be?

LG: Not at all. They took that land that the Kurdish people possessed. The PYG are cousins of the PKK, a terrorist group inside of Turkey. The Turkish military and political leaders are apoplectic about us training the PYG as the ground component inside of Syria. The Iraqi Kurds are no more going to go to Ramadi than I’m going to be a Chinese astronaut. The Iraqi Kurds are no more going to go into Raqqa than I’m going to be in the NBA. So this Kurdish mythical army doesn’t exist. There are Kurdish fighters inside of Syria that will take land back, but they’re not going to go into Raqqa. They don’t have the desire to do that, the capability to do that. So when Ted Cruz and Barack Obama are talking about arming the Kurds, you just really don’t understand the limitations on that approach.

DB: Senator, it’s Dan Balz again. Let’s talk about tomorrow night for just a minute. What do you need to get out of this next debate tomorrow night compared to what you’ve been able to do in the prior debates?

LG: Well, I need to, one, I’m glad I’m in the debate. I hope I don’t win it, because I’ll get kicked out of the next one.

HH: (laughing)

DB: (laughing)

LG: What I need to do…

HH: I get the joke.

LG: (laughing)

DB: Do you like the undercard debates?

LG: What I need to do, (laughing) what I need to do is articulate why I’ve been more right than wrong. In the first debate, I said if you don’t understand we need more American boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria to destroy ISIL, you’re not ready to be commander-in-chief. Most people are coming my way after a lot of carnage. Just stay on message. I’m best to win a war we can’t afford to lose. Isolationism is on the run, and I will take credit for this. I think my campaign, above all others, have shown the fallacy of isolationism as a viable alternative to Barack Obama. I think I’ve done a very good job of standing up to isolationists like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz that was white hot two years ago, rejecting that approach to the war on terror, and I’m going to, tomorrow night, talk about why I had to stand up to it, and why I was right to stand up to it.

HH: Senator Graham, Donald Trump has 41% and Ted Cruz has 14% in the Monmouth poll.

LG: Right.

HH: That’s 55% of the party that you’re trying to steer. What does that tell you about where the Republicans are?

LG: You know, all I can tell you is that people are frustrated. You have every right to be afraid, but fear is not a strategy. The worst possible thing you could do in this war on terror is to denigrate the faith, what Mr. Trump has done. The worst possible solution to Syria is to leave Assad in power. To leave Assad in power is a nightmare for the Syrian people. They won’t accept it. It’s a huge win for the Ayatollah, and means the war never ends. It means that Hezbollah has a benefactor for years to come. So these two gentlemen, in my view, don’t really understand the war, but they have tapped into frustration. I’m the establishment, they’re the outsider. At the end of the day, foreign policy is an important discussion, finally, and Donald Trump’s cartoon approach to this seems to be resonating more than a plan I’ve been articulating for two years. I’ve had a plan that requires troops on the ground for two years now. We’ll see what happens. Maybe tomorrow night, I can break through a bit. I hope.

DB: Senator, do you think that 2015 is an aberrational year? Or is it telling us what we’re actually in for in 2016?

HH: We have less than a minute, Senator, so go ahead.

LG: I think, I don’t know, too early to tell. I know this. If we go down the road of immigrant bashing as a party like Mr. Trump has done, we’re going to lose an election we should win. And I have never been more worried about an attack on the homeland. But the party is coming my way on foreign policy. There are more people like Hugh Hewitt today than there were two years ago, so I feel good about that.

HH: Senator Lindsey Graham, I’ll see you across the stage tomorrow night at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Thanks for joining Dan Balz and me.

End of interview.

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