Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Lindsey Graham’s military service always was a conflict waiting to happen

US Sen Lindsey Graham talks to a reporter during a 2008 deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan.
US Sen Lindsey Graham talks to a reporter during a 2008 deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan. AP

I’VE ALWAYS ADMIRED Lindsey Graham in spite of — not because of — his military service.

There’s something inherently wrong with a member of the Congress serving in the U.S. military, where he is subject to commands from his superiors — all the way up to the commander-in-chief.

Specifically, there’s the principle of the separation of powers that underpins our entire system of government. Even if this doesn’t violate it, the conflicts are, well, inherent.

These conflicts wouldn’t have existed if Mr. Graham had stayed in the S.C. National Guard, but he joined the U.S. Air Force Reserves and, according to a report by The Washington Post, got a couple of promotions that, by the book, he did not deserve.

Read why I admire Lindsey Graham here and here.

Inherent conflict? The military has a special designation — “key federal employee” — for people such as Mr. Graham, who don’t get paid (but who do earn a military pension) and don’t have to get the training or put in the work that is expected of all those people not so designated.

There are two great traps for a member of the Congress who serves in the U.S. military: coercion and favoritism. There’s nothing in The Post report about Sen. Graham’s military career to suggest that he tried to use his position to win promotions. There’s a lot to suggest that the military tried to use its promotions to curry favor.

Even absent intent, it is so very easy to convince ourselves that we deserve something we did not earn. It is so very easy to convince ourselves that someone who can do us great good deserves for us to give him something he did not earn.

I wish Sen. Graham had said that when The Post came calling, with military records that showed he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and then to colonel while receiving an average of less than a day and a half of training per year, and without completing the advanced military coursework one would expect. Instead, he talked about all the work he did as a full-time junior officer, before he was elected to Congress.

For that matter, I wish he had refused at least one of those promotions.

I wish Sen. Graham had corrected his official biography — the one that said he was a senior instructor at the Judge Advocate General’s School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, when he wasn’t. Even if he didn’t want to call attention to the fact that he was in Iraq and Afghanistan working with a Defense Department task force on detention policy while we thought he was playing professor in Alabama, he at least could have blurred his bio a bit, so it wasn’t … inaccurate.

I wish Sen. Graham hadn’t sent out that email Monday warning his supporters about the “mainstream media attacks” — and asking for donations.

Mainstream media attacks? On one of the nation’s most darling media darlings? For the record, it’s not an attack to point out that someone got two major military promotions while he did practically no work — during a period that even he refers to as his “wilderness years” in the military. It’s not an attack to point out that one of the bio lines that the friendly media most love to cite refers to what he was assigned to do — but talked his way out of. Especially when that someone is running for president, and using his military experience as a key selling point.

I can’t defend the special treatment Sen. Graham received — and he so painfully, clearly did receive special treatment — or the inaccuracies he either put in or allowed to stay in his biography. They’re not defensible.

But I do think we ought to put them into context.

Whether you think his service was self-serving or sacrificial, the fact is that Lindsey Graham lobbied his superiors to have himself put into war zones, and that’s something we ought to respect. It was a strange arrangement, with ever-so-brief deployments when he could work them around his Senate schedule, but he was deployed overseas 19 times during his congressional career, for a total of 142 days of duty.

Practically everything we’ve heard from full-time military commanders suggests that he worked hard and productively when he was deployed to war zones. And I find that entirely believable, because he understood what was going on in those war zones in a way that comes from actually being out in the field, doing work.

As much as it troubled me for him to remain in the military, I have to admit that the experience made him a more knowledgeable and effective voice on foreign policy, and our nation is better for it. That experience made him a better senator, and would make him a good president if there were any possibility that he could be one, which there isn’t.

If he were running for president or for re-election against a candidate who had his respect for the principles of representative democracy and his proven commitment to finding common ground in an increasingly polarized political system and his overall good judgment and also had earned the rank of colonel, then I’d support that candidate over Sen. Graham. But he has never run against such a person, and it’s hard to imagine that he ever would.

And in the end, I’d rather have someone serving in the Congress or the White House who has gotten more promotions than he deserved than to have someone who never even served in the military. I’d rather have someone in the Congress or the White House who was off serving our country in war zones when he was telling people he was teaching law in Alabama than to have someone who has no clue what war entails.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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