Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Wednesday that the United States should dramatically increase the number of American troops on the ground in Iraq and not leave the region until the radical militants affiliated with the Islamic State are ultimately defeated.
In his first foreign policy speech since declaring his candidacy for president, the South Carolina Republican said the U.S. should have 10,000 forces deployed in Iraq in addition to a regional army in order to seize control of the Middle East out of the hands of Islamic extremists.
“We would put an enormous amount of pressure on ISIL inside of Iraq,” Graham said during a national security speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.
Laying out his foreign policy prescriptions in detail, Graham said he hoped to see the 9,800 U.S. troops currently stationed in Afghanistan to remain in place or even have their numbers increased for an indefinite period of time.
“We’re not leaving until we get this right," Graham said. "We’re not leaving based on a passage of time."
Graham's candidacy injects a uniquely hawkish foreign policy voice into the crowded GOP presidential field, taking on issues that may fall flat even within his own party as voters grow increasingly war-weary. While addressing criticism that his portrayal of global threats play out as outright fear-mongering, Graham called radical Islamists “religious Nazis” while warning that the U.S. needed to be the aggressor to avoid being the victim.
“There is no alternative to going in on the ground and pulling the caliphate up by the roots,” he said. “If that scares you, don’t vote for me.”
His defiance toward voters who do not agree with his foreign policy stance is uncommon for the typical presidential hopeful, not to mention for one already facing long-shot chances to make it to the White House. Graham will be among a crowded middle-tier of Republican contenders jockeying for a coveted position onstage at debates once they begin next month. Based on Graham's current standing in early polls, there's a chance the prominent South Carolina senator will not make the cut.
Graham on Wednesday went out of his way to troll his frequent advisory Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whose isolationist views on foreign policy are constantly at odds with the South Carolina senator's advocacy for military aggression.
"I think everybody running except Rand Paul could get a better deal with the Iranians," Graham said after snubbing President Obama for being "too soft" on the U.S. nuclear deal in the works with Iran.
Graham stands out from his peers in the presidential race with his aggressive national security stance and more moderate tact on immigration. "My party is in a hole with Hispanics. The first rule of politics when you're in a hole is to stop digging. Somebody needs to take the shovel out of Donald Trump's hand," Graham said.
Prominent activist Medea Benjamin of the peace group Code Pink managed to crash the Q&A session of the event, challenging Graham’s policy prescriptions for every country in the Middle East before event organizers were able to wrangle the microphone out of her hands.
“I’m going to put her down as undecided,” Graham quipped to the crowd before addressing Benjamin directly. “I think people like you make the world incredibly dangerous. I think people like you are radical Islam’s best hope, because you don’t understand.”