Lindsey Graham wants America's military to respond forcefully to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but he worries the effects of sequestration have reduced the country's readiness to respond quickly to developing situations around the globe.
"Sequestration will give us the smallest Air Force ever, the smallest Army since 1940 and the smallest Navy since 1915," Graham said.
South Carolina's senior U.S. senator spoke Wednesday after an appearance before the military affairs committee of the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce. He stressed the need to maintain military readiness in an age when Graham admits many Americans are weary after a decade of war. The consequences of a decline in American power around the world could be chaos.
"A weak America invites war," he said. "Sequestration doesn't just affect the military. The CIA, national intelligence, defense intelligence, the NSA (National Security Administration), they've all been degraded. It's the perfect storm."
Graham is concerned about the country's standing in the world, but he also touts his knowledge of military affairs and the fact he's a prominent voice on national defense on Capitol Hill as assets in his re-election campaign. When Republicans vote in the party primary next June, Graham will have to beat at least three challengers to make his way back to the U.S. Senate.
Graham will return to Washington next week for an expected vote authorizing President Obama to take military action against Syria, where the government of Bashar Assad is accused of using chemical weapons against civilians in a brutal civil war. Graham has called for strong American engagement on the side of rebels fighting against Assad ever since the uprising began two years ago, but now sounds supportive of Obama's plans to have American forces enter the conflict.
"The goal is to turn the tide of battle without putting boots on the ground, empowering those in Syria we can live in peace with," the senator said, and sidelining elements in the country aligned with al-Qaeda.
He said it will be a difficult balancing act, and thinks next week's congressional vote could go against American action if the president doesn't do a better job explaining how the nation's interests in the Middle East are at stake.
"Two years ago we had some good options," he said. "(Now) I'm trying to find the best of the bad options."
Doing nothing when Syria deploys weapons of mass destruction, Graham said, will embolden Iran and North Korea, or even China, to act aggressively without fear of America's reaction. An ongoing Mideast conflict will also destabilize American allies in the region. "If we do nothing, and this goes on longer, a year from now the king of Jordan will be taken out by the Syrian conflict," Graham said. "He's the last moderate voice bordering Israel."
Graham looks forward to "earning" his chance for a third term in the Senate. His critics — including Spartanburg state Sen. Lee Bright, Anderson pastor Richard Cash and Charleston businesswoman Nancy Mace, the senator's opponents for re-nomination — lambast him as insufficiently conservative, a RINO, or Republican In Name Only. It's a criticism Graham brushes off, saying "conservative" isn't synonymous with being inflexible or hateful.
"It's not enough to get 80 percent of what you want, or even 100 percent of what you want. You have to hate the other side," Graham said, describing his opponents.
Graham thinks he's proved his conservative bona fides — he said he plans to introduce legislation allowing states to opt out of Obama's health care reforms, for example — but said cooperation across the aisle is needed to accomplish anything in the nation's capital.
"I'm a Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush conservative," he said, "Ronald Reagan and (former Democratic House Speaker) Tip O'Neill were able to be conservative and liberal, and still work together to save Social Security. We need bipartisanship."