McCain ally Graham becomes Obama foreign policy player

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — To look at President-elect Barack Obama and Sen. Lindsey Graham sitting side by side Wednesday and to hear them passing out praise, you wouldn't know that scarcely 10 weeks ago they were at political war.

Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is a close friend of Sen. John McCain and crisscrossed the country with him during his losing presidential bid.

"I think this is a good way to get started," Graham said as he sat with Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden before a throng of journalists at the Obama transition headquarters in Washington. "The campaign is over. I'm disappointed in the outcome, but like every American I'm excited about what awaits our country in the future.

During a 45-minute private meeting, Biden and Graham briefed Obama on their just-completed five-day trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Kuwait.

The three men then met reporters against a backdrop of five American flags.

Graham told Obama that the foreign leaders they'd met are extremely enthusiastic about his inauguration on Tuesday.

"There's a moment in time for this country to re-engage the international community, and to make sure that we have international support to stabilize Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq," Graham said.

"(Obama's) popularity and the respect he has earned throughout the world give America a chance to re-engage not only in the region, but in a way that in the long run makes his job easier and takes the pressure off our troops," he said.

Graham turned to Obama and added:

"That's a compliment to you and the way you have campaigned, and the goodwill you have generated."

Obama said Biden and Graham "represent in their respective parties as smart and as dedicated public officials as we're going to get."

Turning toward Biden, Obama said, "I thank you for having the wisdom and foresight to invite Lindsey Graham."

Then, gesturing to each man on either side of him, Obama said: "Joe Biden, I'm drafting as my vice president. Lindsey Graham, I'm drafting as one of our counselors in dealing with foreign policy."

Although the overseas trip was officially Biden's last as part of a congressional delegation, it was in effect the Obama administration's first foray abroad, and the foreign leaders whom Biden met greeted him as an emissary of the incoming president.

Obama's decision to tap Graham to accompany his vice president on a high-profile trip to a volatile region signals that Graham will maintain substantial influence as a bipartisan pragmatist, even in a Congress with expanded Democratic control.

Graham, a military lawyer who's served five active-duty tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past two years, said after the meeting that he's talked with Obama four or five times since the election.

Graham said he's also working with senior lawyers in the incoming administration on how to deal with Guantanamo Bay detainees after Obama closes the U.S. military prison in Cuba, possibly as soon as he takes office.

In an interview after the Obama briefing and news conference, Graham said he initially was disappointed in Obama because the Illinois senator in 2006 had "helped undercut the deal" President Bush, McCain, Graham and others had reached on immigration legislation.

However, as Obama went toe to toe with Sen. Hillary Clinton, now his nominee to be secretary of state, and then battled McCain, Graham's respect for Obama increased.

"I've grown to admire his political skills," Graham said. "They're tremendous. What he did is unbelievable. To win in the (Democratic) primary against very talented opponents — and then he conducted an almost flawless general-election campaign."

Graham also praised Obama for moving toward "withdrawing responsibly" from Iraq, supporting the dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan and "understanding the importance of Pakistan."

Obama has made "centrist appointments" to his Cabinet that indicate his willingness to hear different points of view, Graham said.

One reason he wanted to accompany Biden on the foreign trip, Graham said, was to show fractious Iraqis and Afghans how democracy can work.

"I'm practicing what I'm preaching," Graham said. "We're asking the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds to compromise (in Iraq). It's important that they see one of the higher opponents of the Obama-Biden ticket come on one of their first foreign trips to reinforce that we're behind the new president."

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