Lindsey Graham is the Most Shameless Man in American Politics

The South Carolina senator once put a lot of effort into cultivating an image of a reasonable, sober, sensible, moderate Republican, willing to reach out across the aisle, willing to stick up for his principles, willing to denounce Donald Trump. But today, there is no position he won’t abandon, no U-turn he won’t perform, no lie he will not tell.

Congress whiffs on war powers

There are 99 better, or at least less abject, senators. However, Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is inadvertently useful by incessantly demonstrating the depths to which senators sink when they jettison institutional responsibilities to facilitate subservience to presidents of their party. Consider the contrast between Graham and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) concerning Congress’s responsibilities regarding war.

Last Wednesday, administration officials, in what they evidently considered an optional concession to inferiors, gave a short (75 minutes), closed-door congressional briefing on military action against supposedly imminent threats from Iran. Presidential freedom to unilaterally commit acts of war unrelated to imminent threats would amount to an uncircumscribed power to undertake not just limited preemptive actions but to wage preventive war whenever a president unilaterally decides this might enhance national security.

Lee is famously mild-mannered but wasn’t after what he called an “insulting and demeaning” briefing in which executive branch officials instructed Congress concerning what it can debate: The briefers, who included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, warned that making military action subject to congressional authorization might encourage Iranian aggression. Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) asked whether, if the administration decided to take the extreme action of assassinating Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, it would at least notify Congress. The briefers would not say so.

Congress last declared war on June 5, 1942, against Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, with a war already raging. This was 78 years and many wars ago. A power neglected, like a muscle never exercised, atrophies. Now, Graham explicitly says that even debating, not a declaration of war but merely the wisdom of past military actions and necessary authorization for future ones, means “empowering the enemy.”

Last April, Pompeo was asked during a Senate hearing: Is the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda and other nonstate actors responsible for 9/11 sufficient authorization for the president to wage war more than 18 years later against Iran? Pompeo laconically said he would prefer to “leave that to lawyers” — presumably those he employs.

With a few exemplary exceptions, notably Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), congressional Democrats, too, have been situational ethicists about their responsibilities regarding war. The Obama administration’s shambolic intervention in Libya’s civil war, the costs of which are still mounting, proceeded unaccompanied by congressional authorization but swaddled in executive branch sophistries. Barack Obama’s Justice Department vigorously defended what no one denied — that presidents may initiate military action without congressional approval. The issue, however, was that the administration, which had said the intervention would last “days, not weeks,” then said that thousands of airstrikes, which caused numerous casualties over seven months and had the intended result of regime change, did not constitute “hostilities.”

Wednesday’s briefing caused Lee to endorse Kaine’s proposal to direct the president to stop engaging in hostilities against Iran or any portion of its government or military unless continuation is explicitly authorized by a congressional declaration of war or other authorization of force. Senate passage of this would take Democratic unanimity and two more Republicans joining Lee and Kentucky’s Rand Paul in supporting it. The House presumably would concur. Though Senate Republicans would subsequently sustain a presidential veto, virtues are habits, and this exercise might be the beginning of congressional involvement in decisions about war and peace becoming habitual.

Presidential discretion is presumptively greatest regarding foreign relations. And many aspects of the modern age — weapons of mass destruction; the swift, perhaps surreptitious and potentially intercontinental delivery of such weapons; the multiplication of violent nonstate actors — have radically altered the context in which the framers’ spare language in the Constitution’s pertinent provisions must be construed: The Congress has the power “to declare war” (also to “raise and support armies” and “maintain a navy”); the president is commander in chief of the armed forces.

Concerning limits on presidential discretion, there is a large gray area. However, the activity of unilaterally preventive wars is not in it.

Coons asked the briefers this: Suppose that in coming months the administration concludes that Iran, having shed the nuclear agreement’s constraints, is about to acquire a nuclear weapon. Would you need authorization from Congress prior to strikes meant to prevent this? The briefers would not agree even to consultation with Congress, though Coons several times restated and narrowed the question. Congress should not be surprised when the executive branch takes Congress’s responsibilities regarding war no more seriously than Congress does.

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U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Updated January 10, 2020

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question to Post reporters.

Trump the Intimidator Fails Again

Because he’s just a bully with delusions of grandeur.

International crises often lead, at least initially, to surging support for a country’s leadership. And that’s clearly happening now. Just weeks ago the nation’s leader faced public discontent so intense that his grip on power seemed at risk. Now the assassination of Qassim Suleimani has transformed the situation, generating a wave of patriotism that has greatly bolstered the people in charge.

Unfortunately, this patriotic rallying around the flag is happening not in America, where many are (with good reason) deeply suspicious of Donald Trump’s motives, but in Iran.

In other words, Trump’s latest attempt to bully another country has backfired — just like all his previous attempts.

From his first days in office, Trump has acted on the apparent belief that he could easily intimidate foreign governments — that they would quickly fold and allow themselves to be humiliated. That is, he imagined that he faced a world of Lindsey Grahams, willing to abandon all dignity at the first hint of a challenge.

But this strategy keeps failing; the regimes he threatens are strengthened rather than weakened, and Trump is the one who ends up making humiliating concessions.

Remember, for example, when Trump promised “fire and fury” unless North Korea halted its nuclear weapons program? He claimed triumph after a 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. But Kim made no real concessions, and North Korea recently announced that it might resume tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Or consider the trade war with China, which was supposed to bring the Chinese to their knees. A deal has supposedly been reached, although details remain scarce; what’s clear is that it falls far short of U.S. aims, and that Chinese officials are jubilant about their success in facing Trump down.

Why does Trump’s international strategy, which might be described as winning through intimidation, keep failing? And why does he keep pursuing it anyway?

One answer, I suspect, is that like all too many Americans, Trump has a hard time grasping the fact that other countries are real — that is, that we’re not the only country whose citizens would rather pay a heavy price, in money and even in blood, than make what they see as humiliating concessions.

Ask yourself, how would Americans have reacted if a foreign power had assassinated Dick Cheney, claiming that he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands? Don’t answer that Suleimani was worse. That’s beside the point. The point is that we don’t accept the right of foreign governments to kill our officials. Why imagine that other countries are different?

Of course, we have many people in the diplomatic corps with a deep knowledge of other nations and their motivations, who understand the limits of intimidation. But anyone with that kind of understanding has been excluded from Trump’s inner circle.

Now, it’s true that for many years America did have a special leadership position, one that sometimes involved playing a role in reshaping other countries’ political systems. But here’s where Trump’s second error comes in: He has never shown any sign of understanding why America used to be special.

Part of the explanation, of course, was raw economic and military power: America used to be just much bigger than everyone else. That is, however, no longer true. For example, by some key measures China’s economy is significantly bigger than that of the United States.

Even more important, however, was the fact that America was something more than a big country throwing its weight around. We always stood for something larger.

That doesn’t mean that we were always a force for good; America did many terrible things during its reign as global hegemon. But we clearly stood for global rule of law, for a system that imposed common rules on everyone, ourselves included. The United States may have been the dominant partner in alliances like NATO and bodies like the World Trade Organization, but we always tried to behave as no more than first among equals.

Oh, and because we were committed to enforcing rules, we were also relatively trustworthy; an alliance with America was meaningful, because we weren’t the kind of country that would betray an ally for the sake of short-term political convenience.

Trump, however, has turned his back on everything that used to make America great. Under his leadership, we’ve become nothing more than a big, self-interested bully — a bully with delusions of grandeur, who isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks. We abruptly

  • abandon allies like the Kurds;
  • we honor war criminals; we
  • slap punitive tariffs on friendly nations like Canada for no good reason. And, of course,
  • after more than 15,000 lies, nothing our leader and his minions say can be trusted.

Trump officials seem taken aback by the uniformly negative consequences of the Suleimani killing: The Iranian regime is empowered, Iraq has turned hostile and nobody has stepped up in our support. But that’s what happens when you betray all your friends and squander all your credibility.

The Humiliation of Lindsey Graham

He traded his honor to be “relevant” as a Trump adviser. But on Syria, Trump didn’t bother to ask what he thought.

It was a cri de cœur from Lindsey Graham, the lament of the sycophant scorned.

President Trump’s decision to abandon our Kurdish allies in Syria by leaving them undefended against a Turkish invasion was, Graham tweeted, “a disaster” and a “nightmare.”

“President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam,” he wrote pointedly of his good friend. “They are NOT tired of fighting us.” And he commented on the signal Trump’s decision sent to the world: “By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible – America is an unreliable ally and it’s just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways.“

In his cruelest cut of all, he compared Trump to Barack Obama. “No matter what President Trump is saying about his decision,” wrote Graham on Twitter, “it is EXACTLY what President Obama did in Iraq with even more disastrous consequences for our national security.”

Graham’s disappointment was palpable, but understandable, given all that he has given up to avoid this moment.

For the last several years, Graham has transformed himself from one of Trump’s fiercest critics, into one of his most reflexive defenders. Even by the cynical and shape-shifting standards of Washington, Graham’s metamorphosis has been a thing of wonder. The senator once known as John McCain’s best friend in the Senate, transformed himself into Trump’s shinebox, willing to ingratiate himself with rationalizations and praise even as Trump became increasingly erratic.

At first, it was a mere curiosity. During the 2016 campaign, Graham had called Trump a “nutjob” and a loser,” as well as a “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” He predicted that if the GOP nominated him, “we will get destroyed…….and we will deserve it.”

But as McCain faded from the scene, Graham seemed to shift his affections to the man who so publicly insulted McCain.
Graham and Trump became a thing. They played golf. They talked on the phone. And an alliance of the oddest imaginable bedfellows was born.

In moments of candor, Graham tried to explain the deal he thought he was making. When Mark Leibovich asked him earlier this year what had happened to him, Graham explained:

“Well, O.K., from my point of view, if you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this,” he said.

I asked what “this” was. “ ‘This,’ ” Graham said, “is to try to be relevant.” Politics, he explained, was the art of what works and what brings desired outcomes. “I’ve got an opportunity up here working with the president to get some really good outcomes for the country,” he told me.

Like many others in his party, staying “relevant” was central to their political calculations. Capitulating to Trump meant that Graham would become a rock star in the increasingly Trumpist party and virtually assured of re-election in South Carolina next year.

He would also have the president’s ear. And this was at the heart of Graham’s Bargain.

Graham told himself: by staying close to Trump, he could influence him and prevent horribly bad decisions. Others made the same calculation, but Graham made the uber-tradeoff, because the stakes were so high. What did it matter if he had to endure temporary embarrassments, abase himself on cable television, or even become a political punchline, if he could stop Trump from impulsive decisions regarding Russia or North Korea? Or Syria?

The world saw Graham as a craven, cringing Uriah Heep. Graham saw himself as someone who could save the world, or at least the Kurds.

Graham calculated: If he didn’t play golf with Trump and indulge his penchant for pillow talk, Trump would be putting and chatting with Rand Paul, listening to the counsels of isolationism, appeasement and international amorality. He was not simply the adult in the room; he was the adult BFF in the room, who would temper Trump’s worst instincts.

And then came Trump’s decision.

Despite Graham’s compulsive turd-polishing of the last few years, Trump didn’t even consult him before making the decision to abandon the Kurds. Graham, who had given up so much self-respect to prevent just this outcome, was not even in the room. He didn’t even get a text.

This is the thing about Faustian bargains. The price is high and the rewards turn out to be illusory. They end badly.

This week, Lindsey Graham, found that out the hard way. I wonder what they’ll talk about the next time they go golfing together.