Posted by on June 04, 2015 in Blog

Lindsey_GrahamandDempsey.jpgFrom his hometown of Central, South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham made it abundantly clear that his newly announced presidential campaign is founded on one issue: foreign policy. Of the other three U.S. Senators running for the GOP presidential nomination—Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)—Sen. Graham is the most senior and most experienced with foreign policy. He was first elected to the Senate in 2002 after serving eight years in the House of Representatives and until recently has served in the Air Force reserve for over three decades. Sen. Graham’s foreign policy experience and entrance into the race comes at a significant moment. With Republican voters growing more concerned with national security and foreign policy as key issues, candidates such as Sen. Graham will have a critical role in shaping the debate on these issues.

Sen. Graham has openly recognized that he must rely on his foreign policy bona fides in order to stand a chance in the GOP race. Prior to formally announcing his campaign, Sen. Graham voiced very hawkish statements about what his foreign policy would look like if he was elected into the Oval Office.  In speaking about how he would handle individuals attempting to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Sen. Graham stated, “I’m not going to call a judge, I’m going to call a drone, and we will kill you." During a press briefing with fellow Republicans, Sen. Graham painted a dramatically grim picture of the Middle East by claiming that the region is “on fire” and that “it is every person for themselves.” Thus far, Sen. Graham has only proposed military solutions to the region's problems, saying that he would “take the fight to them,” them being America’s enemies. While Sen. Graham’s military bravado may appeal to foreign policy hawks, the lack of depth in his policy prescriptions reveals a failure to understand the complexities of foreign policy.

In his announcement speech, Sen. Graham announced to supporters that America’s enemy is "radical Islam." “Radical Islam is running wild … they are large, rich and entrenched. As President I will make them small, poor and on the run,” declared Sen. Graham. As part of his closing comments he invoked his inner Samuel P. Huntington, the author of the infamous “Clash of Civilizations” theory, when he asserted, “my enemies are those who despise our shared values, the enemies of enlightenment, the culture of death that seeks to destroy the dignity of life.”

While no one expects Sen. Graham to ultimately earn the Republican nomination, his simplistic approach may have two significant impacts.

First, Sen. Graham’s rhetoric and foreign policy positions will force other candidates to adopt a harder line than expected, especially during the primaries. His years in Congress provide his stance on foreign policy a level of legitimacy that other candidates lack. GOP candidates have already expressed hawkish positions on foreign policy issues because doing so is music to the ears of Republican primary voters. Yet, Sen. Graham’s rhetoric and positions will make it particularly difficult for other candidates to advocate for a moderate foreign policy agenda. Additionally, his congressional experience on these issues will force his GOP rivals to provide nuanced policy prescriptions, not just broad comments that call for the revival of U.S. supremacy on the global stage.

Second, Sen. Graham’s fixation with ‘radical Islam’ may ultimately result in comments about Islam, American Muslims or Arab Americans that teeter on the line of bigotry. This occurred during President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, and the growing public fear of ISIL will only exacerbate this possibility. Almost every announced GOP candidate has made statements that identified ‘radical Islam’ as the foremost threat to the U.S. but Sen. Graham’s extensive travel in the Middle East makes his words much more powerful than say, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. While Sen. Graham and his GOP colleagues may not actively seek to alienate the American Muslim and Arab American community, their repeated conflation of terrorism and the faith of more than a billion people does exactly that.

Sen. Graham’s campaign for the Oval Office is a long shot by all means. Sen. Graham’s influence on this campaign season will be similar to that of the role that some expect Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) to play on the democratic side. Sen. Graham’s seniority and rhetoric will mold the way that GOP candidates debate foreign policy.  His presence will only serve to push his GOP rivals more to the right than towards the center. While this may be a winning strategy for primary elections, it could prove disastrous come Election Day.