On a dangerously windy early November afternoon, a military plane carrying a delegation of six U.S. senators made four successive approaches attempting to land at Halifax airport before giving up and turning around. Rather than heading for home, though, the plane landed in Bangor, Maine, where senators and staff overnighted before trying Halifax again, this time successfully, early the next morning.
There was, then, a certain determination in their effort to get to the Halifax International Security Forum, an annual gathering of mostly Western policymakers and security specialists spearheaded by the indefatigable Canadian defense minister Peter MacKay and the German Marshall Fund of the United States. No one said why the delegation was so determined. But to judge solely by the effect, maybe the answer was: because one of the senators, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, had a message he wanted to convey.
Asked about the effect of the GOP midterm victory on the Obama administration’s foreign policy, the hawkish Graham said, “Republican ascendency is probably good news for those that want to see it through in Afghanistan and have a good relationship with Iraq.” Then he added: “I think it’s good news for the president if he wants to be bold on Iran. . . . I can tell you this. If he decides to be tough on Iran beyond sanctions, I think you’re going to see a lot of Republican support for the idea that we cannot let Iran develop a nuclear weapon.”
Tough beyond sanctions. What are the Americans thinking? A journalist from the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, who described himself facetiously as a “European wimp,” asked exactly that.
Graham was happy to elaborate:
Nobody would like to see the sanctions work any more than I would because I’m still in the military [Graham is a colonel in the Air Force reserves who has served active duty during Senate breaks in Iraq and Afghanistan] and I get to meet these young men and women on a regular basis, and I know what it’s been like for the last nine years. So the last thing America needs is another military conflict. But the last thing the world needs is a nuclear-armed Iran. And if you use military force, if sanctions are not going to work and a year from now it’s pretty clear they’re not going to work, what do our friends in Israel do? So I would like the president to make it abundantly clear that all options are on the table. And we all know what that means.
Graham was just winding up:
And if that day ever came, my advice to the president, in open session here, if you take military action against Iran as the last effort to stop their nuclear ambitions, you do open up Pandora’s box. But if you let them acquire nuclear weapons, you’ll empty Pandora’s box. So my view of military force would be not to just neutralize their nuclear program, which are probably dispersed and hardened, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force, and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard. In other words, neuter that regime. Destroy their ability to fight back and hope that people . . . inside Iran would have a chance to take back their government and be good neighbors to the world in the future. So that’s what I mean by being tough, sir, that everything is on the table and that we need to start talking more openly about that because time is not on our side.
Gulp. “Neutralize . . . sink . . . destroy . . . neuter.” The moderator, Susan Bonner of CBS News, rattled and apparently looking for a lifeline to haul her panel out of a George W. Bush-infested sea of rogue American militarism, turned to Graham’s co-panelist, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado: “Senator Udall, the Democratic view on that issue? Neutering Iran.” Udall was no help. “Most of the members of the Senate caucus agree that you keep all options on the table,” he said. “The steps that Senator -Graham has outlined are very significant, very serious, would have worldwide repercussions. I’m not willing to put my support behind that step here in a -theoretical context, but I think you’ve got to keep every option on the table and let the Iranian regime know that we’re deadly serious, not just as the United States of America, but as a world community.”
The panel was nominally on the meaning of the 2010 elections, but the room had clearly moved on. The last question of the session went to the chairman of the Turkish parliament’s foreign relations committee, Murat Mercan. Turkey, which has a 310-mile border with Iran, has recently been assiduously pursuing a “no problems with neighbors” policy that has caused serious indigestion in Washington, most notably over the May initiative of Turkey and Brazil to cut a nuclear deal with Iran intended to undercut support for tougher U.N. sanctions. A clearly troubled Mercan, who said he would soon be visiting Iran, wanted to know, “if the allies have to resort to the last option,” whether they had thought through the regional implications.
Graham didn’t flinch:
If I thought containment would work, I wouldn’t be saying the things I’m saying. So you’ve got two evils to choose from, I guess. And the evil that comes from the nuclear-armed Iran will affect the world as we know it far greater than whatever conflict would arise if you had to use military force. So at the end of the day, when you go to Iran, please convince them, if you can, that our country—the world at large—does not want this conflict, but that the regime has no credibility in my eyes. I think they’re duplicitous. I think they’re murdering their own people. I think they do not represent the hopeful nature of mankind. And if they acquire a nuclear weapon, they do so at their own peril because now’s the time to stand up before it’s too late.
Then came an ominously folksy admonition: “As to Turkey, I want to come to your country. I can’t figure where y’all are going. Y’all are a great ally. I’m worried about your position with Israel. I don’t know what’s going on in Turkey. I know you’re a member of NATO. I hope you get in the European Union. But you have a chance, my friend, to be a real force for the good. Don’t let it pass.”
All in all, Graham’s performance was a tour de force. First, it was a bucket of cold water in the face of anyone harboring the impression that the United States would drift without comment toward eventual acceptance of an Iranian bomb.
But Graham also seems to have calibrated his message for multiple audiences. For President Obama, it was a sincere promise of support for military action if the Iranian government persists in its nuclear quest, as well as a warning that he must take his own policy and rhetoric seriously: Iran can’t have the bomb. For the Iranians, the message was that a harder line would be coming out of the United States following the November elections, a point Udall reinforced with his affirmation of keeping “every option on the table.” For Europeans and other allies, not least Turkey, -Graham offered a display of bellicosity that would on one hand trouble them greatly, and on the other, remind them that if they don’t want an American attack, they must succeed with their efforts to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. For Republicans, Graham delivered a rebuke to any isolationist tendencies that might be struggling to emerge among the newly elected GOP members of the Senate and House.
And for John McCain, who led the congressional delegation to Halifax, the message was that he has groomed in Lindsey Graham a thoughtful and worthy successor as the Senate’s leading human rights- and democracy-oriented foreign policy hawk.