Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., right, accompanied by CNN journalist Jake Tapper, left, speaks on stage during an Atlantic Council event on July 8, 2015.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., right, accompanied by CNN journalist Jake Tapper, left, speaks on stage during an Atlantic Council event on July 8, 2015. Andrew Harnik/AP

Lindsey Graham Gets Specific: We Need 20,000 U.S. Troops in Iraq and Syria

That makes him the only presidential candidate explicitly calling for a large American ground force — and the only one saying exactly what he’d do against the Islamic State.

For a candidate launching a longshot bid for the Republican nomination, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sure spends a lot of time telling people not to vote for him.

Graham says some 20,000 U.S. troops are needed in Iraq and Syria, alongside a regional army from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, to defeat the Islamic State. Take it or leave it.

“Not because I like war, [or] because I want war ... I’ve learned a lot from [President George W. Bush]’s mistakes, my mistakes, Obama’s mistakes,” Graham said Wednesday in a speech at the Atlantic Council. But he said there’s no other way to defeat the “religious Nazis” of ISIS. “There is no alternative to going in on the ground and pulling the caliphate up by the roots. If that scares you, don’t vote for me.”

Graham is betting this straight talk is what voters want to hear. National security has become Republican voters’ top priority, and Graham cited a Monday Quinnipiac poll that says 72 percent of Iowa caucus-goers support sending U.S. ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. (Among caucus-going Democrats, 63 percent oppose the idea.) Whether or not the broader electorate agrees with Graham’s strategy, his candor on national security differentiates him from rivals whose specific policy proposals are as few as the field is wide.

Graham said the 3,500 American troops in Iraq are “too few to do what we need to do.” He called for increasing that to 10,000, including a special forces component to “hunt the leadership of ISIL morning, noon and night — not just a single raid.” Other forward-deployed forces would call in airstrikes, operate attack helicopters, provide intelligence, and train and advise from embeds at the battalion level.

When Jake Tapper, the CNN reporter who moderated the discussion, suggested Graham wouldn’t go so far as to recommend American boots on the ground in Syria, the senator corrected him. “I do favor sending U.S. troops into Syria. Absolutely,” Graham said. He said the U.S. should send 10,000 troops into Syria, adding that his recommended force levels for Iraq and Syria are based on military leaders’ advice. “I just don’t make these numbers up.”

“The capital of the caliphate is inside Syria, not Iraq,” he said. To remove it and Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad would require “a large military operation.”

Graham said the U.S. troops would operate as part of a regional army made up of soldiers from Middle East allies with their own sizable armies: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Yet on Tuesday, Graham’s own questioning of Defense Secretary Ash Carter during an Armed Services Committee hearing underscored how far his vision is from the grim reality. The $500 million program to train and equip some 15,000 Syrian fighters over three years has only found 60 suitable for training. And the U.S. has yet to decide on a strategy for dealing with Assad.

Here’s how Graham says he would sell it to regional would-be partners: “Here’s the deal, guys. You want Assad on the table, he’s on the table …. But here’s the price of admission. Stop funding terrorist organizations, stop double dealing. I want you to change your behavior. If I hear of any of you funnelling money to any of these radical groups, then we’re going to have an unpleasant conversation.

“And I’ll let women drive,” he added. “Up your game at home.”

U.S. forces would likely carry the burden of the fight, he said, and he didn’t rule out the possibility that even more American troops might be needed to “clear, hold, and build.” “Because I don’t want to lose. You’re gonna need a large force, 30- or 40,000 ISIL guys, God knows how many. I’m not looking for a fair fight here.”

Nor did Graham shy away from the nation-building that has come under scrutiny in the wake of other messy interventions. “The amount of money it takes to reconstruct Syria makes Iraq look like a walk in the park,” he said, noting the American taxpayer will help pay for it. “We’re not leaving until we get this right.”

By the way, he said, the U.S. needs to keep its 9,800 troops in Afghanistan as well.

Graham explicitly contrasted his national security specificity with that of his rivals, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and his favorite foreign policy piñata, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

“Simply put, President Obama’s foreign policy has been a disaster and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was one of his chief architects,” Graham said, employing one of his go-to stump speech lines.

“When I hear a Republican candidate for president say I wouldn’t send any more troops into Iraq, tell me why you would expect a different outcome than what President Obama is achieving today?” he said. “When I hear a candidate for president on the Republican side say, ‘I’m not into open-ended commitments’ — to the people in the Mideast, that comes differently than you intend. That shows a sign of weakness.”

He called Paul the “one voice that has been weaker than President Obama … I think everybody running except Rand Paul could get a better deal than Obama with the Iranians.”

On Sunday, Bush distanced himself from the democracy-building visions of Graham and his brother. “It has to be tempered with the realization that not every country is immediately going to become a little ‘d’ democratic country. Iraq would be a good example.” Earlier, Bush struggled with this balance, fumbling the question of whether he would’ve invaded Iraq as his brother did, knowing what we know now.

Graham waded in eagerly. “If I knew then what I know now I wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, but I still would’ve tried to push Saddam out,” he said. But he acknowledged, “The mistake Bush made, and to some extent Lindsey Graham, is not appreciating what happens when a dictator falls.”

He noted the critics who say he is overeager to use force: “I’m often known for military solutions to problems,” he said. Then he turned it on its head with a jab at his rivals. Whether you agree with me or not,” he said, “most people in the Mideast know me, and I know them.”

“Elections are about choices,” he said, noting the 20-plus field. “When it comes to foreign policy Lindsey Graham offers a very clear and different path. The path I embrace is gonna be tough. But the outcome would ensure a safe America.”

You want easy, Graham says, vote for somebody else. Most probably will, but at least they’ll know what they don’t want.