Lindsey Graham Calls for 20,000 Ground Troops in Iraq, Syria to Defeat Islamic State

Challenges presidential rivals on foreign policy

Lindsey Graham
Lindsey Graham / AP

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) called for sending 10,000 U.S. troops each to Iraq and Syria on Wednesday and criticized some of his fellow Republican presidential candidates for not laying out detailed plans to defeat the Islamic State and help stabilize the Middle East.

In his first major foreign policy speech as a candidate, Graham said the next president must be prepared to send thousands of U.S. troops back to the Middle East to deal with a twofold threat: the metastasis of Islamic terrorist groups and the growing influence of Iran. He raised specific concerns about comments from Sens. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Rand Paul (R., Ky.), two Senate colleagues and presidential aspirants who he said do not understand the dynamics of the region.

He noted at the Atlantic Council that he had been to the Middle East at least 35 times, "busting my butt to understand what’s going on on the ground."

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"They know me and I know them," he said of leaders in the region.

While President Obama said on Monday that, "we’re starting to see some progress" in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, Graham said the president "consistently oversells our success and minimizes the threats to the nation."

IS seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi in May and has recently launched attacks on Aleppo and Palmyra in Syria, its original base of operations. Graham has advocated boosting the current contingent of about 3,500 U.S. military advisers in Iraq to 10,000, which would include special operations forces that could accompany the Iraqi military on the front lines and improve the accuracy of airstrikes. He has said that a similar number of U.S. troops would likely be required in Syria to partner with regional forces and uproot IS.

Cruz and Paul suggested earlier this year that the United States could avoid deploying troops back to Iraq by directly arming Kurdish forces, an idea that Graham said was a "fantasy." Focusing chiefly on the Kurds would likely provoke another conflict with longtime adversaries such as Turkey, a country that is needed to help defeat IS in Syria and transition from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, he said. The Kurds have also not indicated that they would help recapture IS-held cities outside of Kurdish territory, such as Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.

"When I hear presidential candidates say they wouldn’t send more troops to Iraq, tell me why you would expect a different outcome than what President Obama is doing today?" Graham said.

On the initial 2003 invasion of Iraq, Graham said, "if I knew then what we know now, I would have not have invaded Iraq"—an issue that tripped up Jeb Bush, one of the leading GOP contenders, earlier this year. But he added that he "still would have tried to push Saddam [Hussein] out" because of the former Iraqi dictator’s gas attacks on the Kurds and violations of United Nations resolutions.

Graham did not spare Hillary Clinton, the presidential frontrunner on the Democratic side who he said was one of the "chief architects" of Obama’s foreign policy mistakes. But he reserved some barbed language for GOP rivals such as Paul who have proposed less assertive foreign policies.

"He is the one voice in our party who I think has been weaker on national security than President Obama," he said of Paul.

Paul has expressed support for continuing nuclear negotiations with Iran that have yet to yield a final deal. Graham sharply criticized those talks and a prospective deal, which he said would provide too much sanctions relief to the Shiite leaders in Tehran and would invite a backlash from their Sunni Arab rivals in the region.

"I think everybody running except Rand Paul could get a better deal with the Iranians," he said.

Graham said he thinks Americans will support his call for a more aggressive response to the threat IS poses to the homeland, noting recent polls that show a majority backing U.S. troops in the region.

"I am offering a solution to radical Islam that will be hard, but I think it’s the right solution," he said.

"It’s not because I like war, or because I want war," he added. "It’s because I want to defend my nation."