GOOSE CREEK — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is leading the call for the United States to strike at Syria for using chemical weapons on its citizens, even as he faces a crowded GOP primary field next year and acknowledges that most South Carolina voters are weary of war.
As Graham talked about Syria on Tuesday to about 100 members and guests of the Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce, he asked them to raise their hands if they were worried about Syria or knew what the nation should do there.
Few did, and Graham cracked a joke and kept going. A day after he met with President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain to discuss this nation's response to Syria, Graham said doing nothing would embolden Iran and its nuclear program and further destabilize the Middle East.
“I'm less than a year away from re-election,” he said. “Talking about being involved in another armed conflict in the Middle East is like a root canal. But you elected me not just to get me re-elected, I hope ... but to use my best judgment.”
All three of Graham's GOP opponents reflect the skepticism over military action in Syria, skepticism that Obama is hoping to overcome as he seeks congressional approval for a strike.
Richard Cash, a Piedmont businessman, said the nation's military intervention in Libya began as a humanitarian mission but led to a regime change, and he said Syria also could unfold like that.
“Senator Graham is quick to want to intervene, but the law of unintended consequences does come into play,” Cash said. “How big of a commitment is Senator Graham willing to make? I'm not willing to make that commitment if I was voting at this point in time.”
Another prospective Republican opponent, Nancy Mace, a businesswoman and The Citadel's first female graduate, said Monday that she finds no compelling national security reason to engage the U.S. military in Syria.
“I believe American troops should be fighting against al-Qaida, not alongside them,” she said. “Bolstering an opposition dominated by al-Qaida will hurt our national interests and only deteriorate the situation in the Middle East.”
State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, said he questions why people believe intelligence reports that the Syrian administration used chemical weapons when they couldn't find out who attacked the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Bright said Graham “is definitely out of touch with South Carolinians.”
Graham said Tuesday his job is to convince Americans that the future of Syria will affect not just that country but the United States' national security.
“The average South Carolinian is war weary — don't get involved in Syria,” Graham said. “Syria is not about yes or no, should we or shouldn't we. It's about bad or worse. Good and very good, as outcomes, are long behind us. They're in our rear-view mirror.”
“What I'm trying to tell the people of South Carolina is that I believe radical Islam is on the march and that the chemical weapons being used in Syria today could be used against us tomorrow.” He said the good news is that he thinks the U.S. can intervene without sending soldiers there.
It's not just Graham's primary opponents who are skeptical. U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said two people visited him at his Beaufort office Monday afternoon specifically to urge him to oppose military engagement in Syria.
“People are saying, 'Wait a minute. Have we not learned anything based on Iraq and Afghanistan? Why are we contemplating another engagement in that part of the world?' I'm hearing that. There's a degree of skepticism,” he said. “At this point, I'm a dissenting vote.”
Sanford said he may change his mind if there was something compelling about the United States' strategic interests there, adding, “I would give credit to the president for coming to Congress for authorization.”
Graham has not engaged his potential primary opponents in debates so far, but said Tuesday he feels he will have a good story to tell on the campaign trail about his being an effective senator nationally and locally.
“At the end of the day, everybody should have to earn their job in politics,” he said. “I intend to earn a third term. I don't expect it to be given to me.”
Asked what it means that he already has three Republican opponents, Graham said, “It's not about numbers. It's about quality. ... It's going to be about who is best qualified to represent South Carolina during these dangerous times.”
Graham also touched on other topics, such as immigration reform, the Affordable Care Act and deepening the Port of Charleston during Tuesday's luncheon, but he spent the most time talking about Syria and its associated threats. He drew a comparison between Syria and its President Bashar Assad to Germany and Adolph Hitler.
“This is the '20s and '30s all over again, but the weapons are different,” he said. “If there's a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it won't be long before it hits us.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.