The longtime national security leaders and besties talk ISIS, the GOP presidential field, and the first time they met with Defense One.
As South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham looks to revamp his longshot bid for the 2016 Republican nomination in the first-in-the-nation primary state, his buddy Sen. John McCain is often at his side. This past week, so was Defense One, shadowing the senators at seven stops across New Hampshire from law firms to restaurant drop-bys to a Vietnamese temple.
After the Paris attacks, national security is even more in vogue in the presidential election, and Graham is banking on his decades of experience in the military and on key defense committees in Congress for a much-needed momentum boost. McCain, too, faces challenges back home in his bid for reelection. What does it say about the state of the GOP when its top national security leaders in Washington are struggling to get traction outside it? Well, we’ll let them speak for themselves.
Listen to the full interview.
Defense One: How are you planning on getting the Arab countries to put up 90 percent of the ground forces you’re calling for if we can’t even get them to put up in the air coalition?
Graham: Well, they’re not —
McCain: — If Bashar Assad is also the target, that’s the key to it … they fear Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by the Iranians, as much as they do ISIS.
Defense One: Sen. Graham, so if we promise them they can also target Assad, they’ll get in?
McCain: We would also target Assad. Assad right now is killing the people we armed and trained and equipped.
Graham: I can only tell you what they tell us. I’m not joking. The king of Saudi Arabia’s chief advisor said, ‘You can have our army.’ The emir of Qatar says, ‘I’ll pay for the war.’ They want to do two things: they want to stop ISIL before they come in and take their countries over or disrupt their way of life, and they also want to make sure Damascus doesn’t fall into the hands of the Iranians. I’m down for both.
Defense One: But am I correctly understand that you’re calling for the U.S. committing U.S. military force against Assad as well?
McCain: We would — right now, we have — the difference between the Defense Department program of train, arm and equip, and the CIA program of train arm and equip, was that they made the Defense Department people swear not to attack ISIS, so they collapsed!
Graham: (Correcting him) Uh, Assad.
McCain: Excuse me, Assad. But the CIA-sponsored program is still in being and has some vitality, meanwhile Russia is bombing ‘em and meanwhile Bashar Assad is bombing them and dropping barrel bombin’ em.
Defense One: But Sen. Graham, thus far the US has been unwilling and hesitant to go after Assad directly with the U.S. military ... so that’s what you would be calling for?
Graham: Here is what I am calling for — that ISIL is the most direct threat to the United States. It would form a coalition of the region with the Western forces, including the French. We would go in on the ground and destroy the caliphate, their Germany. Assad has to go. We’d take this coalition and turn toward Assad. We would train the Free Syrian Army, what’s left of them. And we would tell Assad the Russians and the Iranians that we want a political settlement that is not going to include the Iranians picking the next leader of Syria, that Assad has to go and if the Russians and Iranians —
McCain: Could I just — yeah —
Graham: If the Russians and Iranians — (to McCain) let me finish my thought — want to fight for the butcher of Damascus, if they’re willing to do so, they’ll be fighting the entire Arab world, Turkey and most of the West, and they’ll fold like a cheap suit.
Defense One: So who replaces Assad?
McCain: Wait, wait, let me just finish up. Hillary Clinton called for a no-fly zone. Who do you think that’s talking about, ISIS?
Graham: ISIS doesn’t have an air force.
McCain: No! ISIS doesn’t have an air force.
Defense One: Right, so we are talking about committing the U.S. military against the Syrian government.
McCain: We are talking about a no-fly zone that says if the Russians’ or Bashar Assad’s planes fly into this — if anyone — and if you fly into it then you do so at your own risk, ok? No-fly zone is not against ISIS. ISIS doesn’t have an air force. So even Hillary Clinton is for a safe zone, and you can’t have that without telling Bashar Assad he can’t fly there.
Graham: You know who follows Assad?
Defense One: Who follows Assad.
Graham: The people of Syria decide. How about that novel idea? How about letting the people of Syria — the Alawite who follow Assad have to have a place in Syria, they can’t be massacred. I understand the political complexities, but most of the people in Syria are ready to move forward, including Assad's supporters. What I would not allow is for the Iranians, through force of arms helped by the Russian,s to dictate the terms of the future of Syria.
Defense One: Right, so if I can switch tacks here -
McCain: And Bashar Assad would not be in power if it were not for (with Graham) the Russians and the Iranians.
Defense One: If I could switch tacks here —
McCain: Ole Miss 24, LSU 7 — I had to tell him.
Graham: Really?! Ok good. I’m sorry.
Defense One: You’ve emphasized this is a national security election — now you’ve said there are two elections —
Graham: Before Paris and after Paris.
Defense One: — and that national security will be even more prominent now. If that is the case, why are candidates like [Ben] Carson and [Donald] Trump who don’t have any national security experience and any military experience — why are they the frontrunners, and not you? Why are you struggling to get traction, to the extent that you didn’t make the debate stage last time?
Graham: Well, one, I think this is the year of an outsider, and I’m looked at as an insider. This is the year where everybody thinks Washington is broken and let’s pick somebody outside the system. I think after Paris, experience is gonna matter; it’s only been a week. And the weight of having to answer a question like you’ve asked me is gonna fall on the shoulders of all these candidates.
You see Carson, who is a fine man, completely unprepared to deal with this issue. He has no clue about what we need to do as far as I’m concerned in terms of how to destroy ISIL. Trump is all over the board. [Texas GOP Sen.] Ted Cruz is a Libertarian one day and Ronald Reagan the next. He’s been so inconsistent. All of this catches up with you over time. Here is what I think is going to happen — the more the national security issue dominates the debate, the more people struggle to find their footing, the better I’ll do.
Defense One: Do you think there’s a disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country, considering the two of you are really national security leaders in the Republican Party and yet Sen. McCain, you’re going to be facing a very stiff challenge back home in your own state —
Defense One: — and Sen. Graham you’ve struggled to get traction in the election —
Defense One: Does that show there’s a disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country?
Graham: No, I just think there's frustration in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party with the status quo. But here’s the question - is John McCain and Lindsey Graham the problem, or we the solution? I would suggest that our willingness to work with Democrats, while a liability among some Republicans, is actually what the country needs. I think Ted Cruz, his ability to solve the problem is zero. How does he lead the nation when he basically declares war on everything and everybody?
Defense One: Given that, are you concerned about the future of the Republican Party on national security, given that that’s the next generation, so to speak?
Graham: No, not really, because I think they’re coming our way. Now three years ago, it was me and John against the world. That’s when isolationism was red-hot, right?
McCain: Yeah, that’s when we were the old hawks.
Graham: Yeah, we were the past. And —
McCain: There weren’t any doves; we were just hawks.
Graham: Yeah, and Ted Cruz was [Sen.] Rand Paul’s biggest buddy. He was introducing resolution after resolution basically dismantling the NSA .
McCain: Rand Paul was on the cover of Time magazine, the ‘new leadership of Republican Party’ or of the nation, or whatever it was —
Graham: The McCain-Graham approach to foreign policy is now very much the centerpiece of this election. Jeb –
Defense One: Do you think it’s here to stay?
Graham: Yes. Well, it’s here for awhile, until we get war weary again. [Former Florida Gov. and 2016 GOP candidate] Jeb Bush is moving in the right direction. Look how many people are talking about boots on the ground. Now Hillary is talking about it, but only because she has to. She would look really foolish to embrace Obama’s foreign policy. She’s calling for a no-fly zone. I think John made a really strong point. Hillary Clinton, by saying that, is saying she’s willing to confront Assad and the Russians.
Defense One: Now I know you say Hillary Clinton is adopting a more hawkish position because she has to politically now – but what do you see as the key distinctions between you and Hillary Clinton? What would be different with a Graham commander in chief?
McCain: Boots on the ground.
Defense One: But she’s also calling for boots on the ground.
McCain: No, she’s not.
Graham: She thinks the Iran deal is good; I think it’s terrible. She will not commit to an American ground force in Iraq larger than it is today. She will not commit to a ground force as part of a regional army to destroy the caliphate; I will.
McCain: She’s against the XL pipeline — (laughs)
Defense One: When it comes to national security though, those are the distinctions I’m looking for.
Graham: Well, I think the biggest distinction in the world is whether or not you think this deal is good with Iran. I think that it’s a nightmare. I think her view of foreign policy is not, you know, she’s trying to adjust but she is not embracing a larger ground component. And if you don’t have an American ground component we’re not going to be successful in Iraq and Syria. She thinks that the deal with Iran is a good deal. I think it’s a lousy deal.
Defense One: Another thing I wanted to ask you about. That event this morning was pretty amazing with the Vietnamese-American community in N.H.
Graham: Mm-hmm! The highlight of my entire campaign for president.
Defense One: I talked to a lot of them after, and so many of them themselves are refugees.
McCain: Oh yeah.
Defense One: And when they got to this country, they faced a certain amount of discrimination —
Graham: Absolutely, yep, totally.
Defense One: — and fear and whether or not they were spies and so on and so forth. Do you see parallels between their situation and the situation with Syrian refugees? And you fought so hard to get the Vietnamese community, to get them to the U.S., it was really your leadership behind that program that enabled them to get here. What makes the Syrian refugee situation different?
McCain: That there was never any enemy intimation that the North Vietnamese wanted to export any kind of terror or attacks into the United States of America.
Defense One: But there wasn’t any fear surrounding the refugees at the time?
McCain: No. No, there really, no there was not. Because the North Vietnamese had to consolidate their victory. They had just taken South Vietnam, they had taken horrendous losses for years, and they had to consolidate their control over the country, absorb South Vietnam, all of that. They had no priority to continue the conflict with us. And that is drastically different from what we are facing in the form of ISIS. There was nobody that was in Hanoi saying, ‘Get on a boat and let us now when you get to the United States so we can have you —’
Defense One: As for refugees themselves —
McCain: Of course not, I am for the refugees. I just want to make sure we have the proper procedures to make sure that they are not gonna commit acts of terror because that what we know that [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] Baghdadi wants to do.
Defense One: This is part of why I wanted to ask you two about this, because you two are national security leaders, you know what the process is, you get briefings on this. You know that 2,100 Syrian refugees have been allowed into the United States, resettled here with zero having ever been arrested for terrorism charges. You know that it takes 18 to 24 months, you know that it involves six different national security agencies — NCTC, DOD, FBI — you know all of this, and yet we don’t hear about that.
McCain: I can tell they just apprehended several people who had come through Greece with fake passports. I know that they had just —
Defense One: In Europe —
Graham: In Honduras, too.
McCain: Yeah in Europe! When you get to Europe it’s a visa waiver program, then all you gotta do is get on an airplane.
Defense One: So you’re more concerned about the visa waiver program than the refugee process?
McCain: I’m concerned about all of it. I’m worried about our border security. They just apprehended in Honduras what was it? Five or six people —
McCain: Something like that. We just have to make sure — listen, there’s nothing wrong with a pause. There’s nothing wrong with an examination of … Lindsey and I know a lot about it. Most members of the United States Senate don’t have any idea of what those processes are.
Defense One: Are leaders in Congress saying enough about what the facts are, what that process is?
Graham: Here’s what I would suggest. That when a Democrat went to the White House to be briefed, he was leaning yes and he came back no. I don’t think Secretary [of State John] Kerry has a very good grip on what's going on, I'll be honest with you, at any level. How do you vet somebody given the chaos? The chaos is so rampant and so disruptive that you should have a pause.
But here’s what we’re not doing. We’re not suggesting that you follow every Muslim and create a database on people. We're not suggesting the Syrian people should be compared to rabid dogs. What we’re suggesting is there’s a national security problem in the making if we don’t slow down and make sure we know what the hell we’re doing when it comes to absorbing people in the refugee flow. But the thing we’re making the most about is that we want to address the problem. We want to not have them leave.
See, the people on the Republican side who are demagoguing this, they are doing what John says — it’s a cop out. They wanna focus exclusively on how tough they are on the refugees; what we want to be doing is be reasonable, balancing our national security against the need to help the refugees. But we want to go to source of the problem, which is the big difference I think between the others.
McCain: Let me mention one other thing. Of the 200 calls I got to my office, there were three that said, ‘Let em in.’ Ok? The American people have to be reassured, and that’s why we’re going through this process. And until they’re sure, we have to make sure that we are convinced so we can tell them they don’t have anything to worry about.
Defense One: Is it a need for the government and leaders to better explain what the process is, or are changes required?
McCain: First we leaders have to be totally briefed up and be assured that all of the proper procedures are in place.
Defense One: But as you understand it now, are you calling for any changes?
McCain: As I understand it now — I’m not calling for any changes, but there are significant questions that haven't been answered.
Graham: I’d vote for the House bill.
McCain: So would I! But yesterday we had a hearing in the Homeland Security Committee and there were questions raised that weren’t answered, ok? So we gotta answer those and make sure we can go back to our constituents and say, ‘Ok, it’s safe.’ I can’t do that right now because I haven’t been briefed up on all the procedures, including this visa waiver program. But again, I want to emphasize — this is like pouring, worrying about the ashes after the house is burned down. This is all a cop out … because this is a result of failed policies. Why won’t these Republicans that are raising hell about it stand up and say, ‘Ok there’s gonna be a no-fly zone. We’re gonna go ahead and arm the Kurds, we’re gonna do all the —
Graham: And we’re gonna have to have boots on the ground!
McCain: Boots on the ground. Yeah.
Defense One: That’s what I’m trying to understand — if these other Republican candidates are playing on the fear of Americans to focus on refugees rather than lack of a plan, you guys are focusing on the plan, but you’re also calling for the pause, like they are.
McCain: But we’re calling for a pause, which is not a place where — but we’re not saying they should register. We’re not saying that —
Graham: — that they’re rabid dogs —
McCain: We’re not saying anything except that our first obligation is to make sure that not only us, but our constituents are confident that there’s not gonna be a terrorist coming in. There’s nothing wrong with a pause! … There is nothing wrong with a pause. That’s all we’re saying, ok?
Graham: You saw the House bill … well ok, I think that those are responsible, correct — you know, looking at the 2,100 who came, you know here’s the problem. The 2,100 came when things were a little more intact than they are today. I can’t tell you how much things are spiraling out of control. It’s getting harder to vet people not easier. The whole system is breaking down over there the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan are now becoming recruiting oases. We need to get a grip on it. The only way to fix this problem is to stop the reason they leave. There are 20 ways to get in this country, not just refugees.
Defense One: Some 2,000 of those refugees have been let in in the last fiscal year. So you’re saying things were more stable then?
McCain: Wait a minute — yeah, and a lot of them we’re saying, yeah they’re more unstable now, hell yes!
Graham: I’m saying that in the last 90 days the whole f****** place is falling apart. Just take the f***** out, ok. No I mean it really is.
Defense One: I know you gotta go but my last question … you obviously have a very unique relationship, you are very good friends —
Defense One: But you’re different in a lot of ways as well —
McCain: Yes, I’m much smarter.
Defense One: Sure, ok, you’re “much smarter.” You’re different generations, you're from South Carolina, you’re from Arizona —
Graham: He’s a hero, I’m not. Yeah yeah.
Defense One: Is this sort of the last ride of the two amigos? You’re running for president, this is it, you’re all in, there’s a potential you [McCain] could lose the job you said you’ve always wanted, as chairman of the Armed services Committee —
Defense One: Given the kind of grim stats you’re looking at, not just you, but the Republican Party in general —
Defense One: With the Senate being the way it is — is this going to be the last ride of the two amigos?
McCain: I am confident that … even if I were out of office and he loses —
Graham: (laughing) It’s a good question.
McCain: — we would still have a role to play. Second of all, I am confident of victory, and I will continue to play a role on national security and so will he. If I get reelection, and I assume that but I certainly under tand the size of the challenge, then we will continue, and we'll have our third amigo, [N.H. GOP Sen.] Kelly Ayotte, who took [former Sen.] Joe Lieberman's place.
Defense One: Another way to put it is: why take this on? This kind of quixotic quest? Lindsey Graham for president?
McCain: — cause I believe in America …
Defense One: You have our own election back home. Why take this on?
McCain: Because I really am concerned about the world today and a lack of leadership and my belief that he is by head and shoulders the most qualified to save this nation. I really believe that.
Graham: And here’s what I’ve learned. John McCain should've been dead 20 times.
McCain: Heh, heh, heh (mock laughter).
Graham: He’s been in four airplane crashes.
Graham: Everything that could possibly happen to this guy to kill him has happened and he’s still standing. At the end of the day, I’ve seen him 5th in a four-person race. In terms of my viability as a presidential candidate, there’s the election before Paris and after. I think we’re already changing the nature of the race I’m proud of this little group we’ve got. John MCcain embracing me up there politically is going to help me.
And it’s not about the outcome as much as it is about the fight itself. We believe that the fight that we’re fighting has to be fought. That we have to wake America up, get our system to change so Republicans embrace more of a middle-right center lane, rather than a right-ditch lane. That we’ve gotta rally the country to destroy radical Islam while we still can without a bunch of Americans being hurt.
And it’s one hell of a good time. What’s the reason for living? I have never had more fun than I am having right now. Having him up here by my side has been the highlight of my political life. We've got a story to tell and we’re gonna tell it. And those who count us out usually wind up making a mistake.
McCain: And as you can tell, Molly, we enjoy it!
McCain: It’s not a chore, it’s not a burden —
McCain: It’s a lot of fun.
Defense One: When is the first time you guys met? Do you remember that moment?
Graham: Durin’ impeachment … it’s a hell of a way to meet somebody.
McCain: I was so impressed by his performance during impeachment — you know he was one of the three that brought the case from the House to the Senate I immediately asked him to come see me and I said look, I’d appreciate it if you’d help me in the campaign. How many years ago was that?
Graham: This is like 1998 or ’99 ... and I said sure and he said, ‘Why were you so quick?’ and I said, ‘Nobody’s ever asked me before.’ (laughs)
McCain: So what, 20 years?
Defense One: Twenty years. The rest is history.