The Republicans who want U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s job oppose military intervention in Syria.
In fact, only one Graham opponent said he would support an American call to arms in the Mideast and, then, only if U.S. ally Israel faced an imminent threat.
South Carolina’s senior U.S. senator spent last week making his case across the state — and nationally — for a U.S. military strike on Syria. President Barack Obama is pushing that plan after accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of using nerve gas on civilians in a Damascus suburb, killing more than 1,400, including at least 400 children.
Even in the face of that alleged atrocity, Graham is wrong in pushing for military action, Graham’s three declared opponents in the June 2014 GOP primary say. Questions remain about how U.S. interests would be served by entering another Middle Eastern conflict, those candidates say.
Instead of striking Syria, two of Graham’s opponents — state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, and Easley businessman and former U.S. House hopeful Richard Cash — said they would continue diplomatic talks, even if it is uncertain what the outcome of those talks would be.
Americans are not under attack now and Obama has not offered a long-term U.S. plan to stabilize Syria if Assad falls and a power struggle ensues as a result of U.S. action, Cash said. At this point, Cash said he only would support sending U.S. troops to the Mideast if the Syrian conflict landed on the soil of U.S. ally Israel.
Bright said he supports boosting Israel’s military stockpile but not sending U.S. troops to fight.
Staying involved in the Mideast “is in our national interest because of the oil,” Bright said. “I just draw the line at dropping bombs.”
Declining to say what next steps she would propose, Nancy Mace, the first female graduate of The Citadel and owner of a Charleston marketing firm, said in an e-mail that she sees “no compelling national security reason to engage our military in Syria.” Instead, Mace said, military action would harm U.S. national interests and worsen tensions in region.
Obama postponed a planned strike to seek congressional approval for military action against Syria. The majority-Democratic Senate could vote on a resolution authorizing a strike this week. If it passes, that resolution would go to the GOP-controlled House for action. Obama plans to address the nation about the conflict Tuesday.
Graham: ‘No good options’
So far, Graham is the only member of South Carolina’s congressional delegation who favors a military strike.
Graham has been pushing for U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war for more than two years. Two years ago, Graham said in an interview with The State Friday, the threat of foreign fighters, including anti-Assad fighters from the al-Qaida terrorist group, entering the Syrian conflict was less.
Now, Graham is pushing for what he called a limited airstrike that would degrade Assad’s military without deploying U.S. “boots on the ground.” After that strike, he said, the United States and its regional allies should provide training and weapons to vetted opposition groups that exclude al-Qaida elements.
“We sent our first Department of Defense training team to Jordan,” Graham said. “That is progress. I want more regional involvement, want them to up their game in terms of training and equipment.
“As to the (anti-Assad) opposition,” the Seneca Republican said, “the longer this goes on, the more likely al-Qaida-types will come to Syria.”
While Charleston’s Mace opposes U.S. forces fighting on the same side as al-Qaida against Assad, Graham said he is not worried about that terrorist group overrunning Syria. Syrians would oppose an “al-Qaida-led country,” Graham said. “That’s not who the Syrian people are. ... The Syrian people will not allow that to happen.”
Graham said the real threat posed by U.S. inaction in Syria is the message it would sent to Iran, North Korea or China, countries that might act more aggressively if they do not fear a U.S. military response.
“My biggest fear is that if we don’t handle Syria right — and there are no good options left because we’ve waited so long — that we’ll be inviting Iranians to march stronger and bolder toward their ambitions for a nuclear weapon,” Graham said. “Doing nothing is an option that is catastrophic.
“To be weak is just as bad,” Graham said, adding Americans must be convinced that U.S. intervention is “about us, protecting our national interests.”
Challengers question justification
Graham’s S.C. opponents say the Republican U.S. senator and Democrat Obama have not made a convincing case yet to Americans about why military intervention is vital to U.S. interests, an opinion shared by several S.C. congressmen.
Both Graham’s challengers and several congressmen cited uncertainties about how the Obama administration handled last year’s Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi as among the reasons to pause.
Calling Graham a “100 percent interventionist,” always favoring “a strong message,” Easley businessman Cash said he does not agree that inaction means the United States is weak. The U.S. military remains “the most powerful and effective military in the world,” he added.
Cash also criticized Obama and Graham for lacking an “end game.”
“What happens if we overthrow Assad? Are we going to be in charge of policing that state?” Cash asked. “If they want to make a course for war, they have to make a case — for beginning to end.”
Neither Cash nor Bright see the humanitarian crisis in Syria as reason enough to pursue military action.
Unavailable for a phone interview, Mace said in an e-mail that Obama has not laid out clear objectives for a U.S. military intervention.
She added South Carolinians who she has spoken to oppose a strike on Syria. Those voters, she said, are concerned, in part, that combatants on both sides of Syria’s civil war, including anti-Assad al-Qaida fighters, do not share American values.
When to act
Cash and Bright both say continuing talks in the region are the best plan at present. However, Cash acknowledged that trying to broker a Syrian peace deal likely is a lost cause.
The only thing that would make either Cash or Bright change his mind about U.S. military action would be a threat to Israel and a call for help from that country.
But they differ on how far the U.S. should go, even then.
Cash said an imminent threat to Israel, where that country needed U.S. forces to defend itself, could move him to support military action.
Bright said the United States should focus its resources at home, not overseas. But, he said, he would support strengthening militarily Israel, adding it is in a better position geographically to keep its neighbors in check than the United States.
Bright’s ideal foreign policy includes expanding the Navy to protect trade routes and reducing U.S. reliance on foreign oil, reducing the need to have an American military presence in the Mideast.
Syrians are in civil war, Bright said. “They’re killing one another, and we’re going to go over and kill more people? I don’t see how exactly that spreads the goodwill of the United States.
“The point of the military is to break things and kill people,” he added. “That’s what militaries do.”
S.C. leaders: To intervene or not?
Where S.C. congressional leaders stand on military action in Syria
For intervention: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican from Seneca, is calling for a limited airstrike, support and training for vetted opposition anti-Assad groups and cooperation with regional U.S. allies.
Opposing intervention: U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan, Republican from Laurens; Trey Gowdy, Republican from Spartanburg; Mark Sanford, Republican from Charleston; and Joe Wilson, Republican from Springfield
Undecided: U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, Republican from North Charleston; and U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn, Democrat from Columbia; Mick Mulvaney, Republican from Indian Land; and Tom Rice, Republican from Myrtle Beach
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