CONWAY — South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham says he’s the presidential candidate with the experience to push back against Islamic State while reducing the national debt and addressing energy independence in an environmentally responsible way.
Graham, 60, is one of 16 presidential candidates seeking to become the Republican nominee next year. The three-term senator plans to hold more than 100 town hall meetings in the state.
On Wednesday afternoon, he held an editorial board meeting with The Conway Daily Sun, after which he was to speak at the Gibson Center for Senior Services in North Conway.
First, he spoke to reporters for about an hour about his vision for the presidency. Though polling in the back of the pack, he’s hopeful that once New Hampshire voters get to know him better, he can win the Granite State.
“The difference between third place and last place is the margin of error,” said Graham. “I don’t think I’m an undercard messenger. I think I’ve paid my dues. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan 35 times. I’ve got something to offer that’s unique.”
Graham spent much of his hour answering questions about his strategy against the Islamic State, which he described as a threat to America.
“Radical Islam couldn’t care less about our political differences, libertarian, vegetarian, Republican and Democrat” he said. “They see us Americans as infidels,” said Graham. “They see us as standing in the way of their caliphate.”
According to Graham, ISIL rose up because U.S. troops left Iraq too soon. At the same time, the Syrians were trying to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad. Both these events created power vacuums into which ISIL stepped.
“You have land the size of Indiana in the hands of ISIL,” said Graham. “Now you have nation states like Iran and Russia forming an alliance to keep Assad in power.”
According to Graham, Assad’s continued presence in Syria means the war there will never end because the Syrian people have rejected him as a leader. What’s more, Arab neighbors won’t stand for an Iranian-controlled Syria. Graham said there are apparently Iranian troops on the ground in Syria and this will be a magnet for Sunni fighters like ISIL because their “mortal enemy” is Shia Islam, which is practiced in Iran.
“If they (ISIL) had three people lined up in front of them, a Shiite, an Israeli and an American, they would kill the Shiite first,” said Graham. “In close second would be a Sunni Muslim who rejects their ideology. Then they would get to the Israeli and eventually to us.”
Graham said Russia has a plan to “carve out space” for their proxy, Assad, while the U.S. is floundering.
“We let the whole place deteriorate,” said Graham. “We don’t have a game plan, and the Russians do.”
But Graham says as president, he would have a plan for Iraq and Syria. He would call for placing 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. That would give the U.S. enough power to “turn the tide of battle” in places like Ramadiand Mosul. In Syria, the U.S. can work with Turkey and regional powers to push out Assad and ISIL.
“I would look at ISIL as Germany and Assad as Japan,” said Graham making a reference to World War II. “If you don’t have a ground game you are not going to destroy ISIL.”
The other way to fight them is to help build economies in the Middle East and promote education, particularly for girls. He said most Middle Eastern people don’t like ISIL and need help fighting back.
On the domestic front, Graham would rebuild the military, which he said has been “gutted.” At the same time, he would look at energy independence while addressing issues with global warming and air quality. He also would deal with the $18 trillion national debt, which he said is a topic that has received short shrift in the debates. He said the U.S. is $70 trillion short of covering the benefits that 80 million baby boomers will soon be receiving as they retire.
To address this, he would dust off the Simpson-Bowles plan and then invite members of Congress to come to the White House for drinks and discussion.
A President Graham would be willing to eliminate tax deductions and credits. He would also support means testing.
Graham says he knows how valuable benefits like Social Security are. His parents died when he was 22 and his sister was 13. They went to live with an aunt and uncle of modest means. He said without Social Security benefits, they would not have been able to make ends meet.
Graham, would said he earns $175,000 a year, said: “I can give up some, and I would to make sure it’s there for people who need it more than I do. I’m not going to ask anybody to do something they can’t do.”
Asked which historical figures he would like to have dinner with, Graham named Winston Churchill, George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.