"We are at war," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) declared before a packed lunchtime audience at the Willard Hotel Tuesday afternoon.
Radical nations like Iran continue to pose a deadly threat to American interests across the globe, Graham said.
"The one concept I will not entertain is having a military that does not make us an exceptional nation," Graham said during a discussion focusing on the impact of defense cuts. "We cannot afford that. The world cannot afford that."
"Radical Islam cannot be accommodated," Graham said. "It must be defeated. If America is not going to help fight radical Islam who will?"
Looming defense cuts took center stage during the event as speakers like Graham grappled with the dangers of sacrificing defense in pursuit of righting the country’s ailing economy.
Nearly $500 billion in defense cuts, otherwise known as sequestration, are scheduled to automatically take place next year if Congress fails to reach a last-minute deal meant to avoid falling off the so-called "fiscal cliff."
Speakers at the discussion—which was jointly sponsored by the Weekly Standard and Concerned Veterans for America—argued that decision makers would be foolish to sacrifice America’s national security in the pursuit of savings.
"I want the Iranian nuclear threat to be resolved" before agreeing to another $500 billion in defense cuts, Graham said. "I want to make sure Syria ends in a way that doesn’t blow up the region."
The U.S. military’s ability to pivot from region to region to protect allies and interests are of the utmost importance, as the world grows more dangerous by the day, Graham said.
"I don’t want to go to war with China," he said. "But it’s always good to know that you could and win."
America must be able to completely cripple Iran should it be forced to confront Tehran over its continuing pursuit of nuclear arms, Graham said.
"If force is to be used, our capabilities need to be such that it will be decisive," he said.
American strength is even more critical in that region because Israel does not possess the military capabilities needed to stop Iran on its own.
"They don’t have the capabilities in my view to bring the program to a complete end," Graham said.
"I think it would be difficult for the U.S. to stop the nuke programs by themselves," Graham said. "[But] I’d rather bet on us than the Iranians."
An American strike on Iran is not guaranteed to be effective.
"I don’t think we can stop the program with confidence," Graham said. "I think we’ve reached the point… [in which] just attacking the nuclear sites is not enough."
America would need to focus on obliterating Iran’s military might, Graham said.
The U.S. must "shoot down their air force, sink their navy and punish the revolutionary guard," he said.
"We will take a blow if military force is taken against Iran," Graham added. "We are opening up Pandora’s Box."
Although the Iranians "can do damage to us, I know how this movie ends—they lose and we win," Graham said.
As U.S. policymakers and the White House seek to reduce spending on defense, other nations are doing the opposite, Graham warned.
"The world is not stagnant when it comes to defense capabilities," he said.
"There is no substitute for American military power in the 21st century," he said. The U.S. "must be superior to anything on the planet at all times. I’m not looking for a fair fight. I’m looking for an overwhelming advantage."