WASHINGTON — Critical mistakes in executing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made Sen. Lindsey Graham more cautious about U.S. military intervention in Libya, leading him to break with long-time allies urging an aggressive response.
The South Carolina Republican’s opposition to arming rebels fighting Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi stands in marked contrast to his past advocacy of offensive armed initiatives in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“I’ve learned that introducing ground troops or arming indigenous forces is a complicated endeavor,” Graham told McClatchy. “We made mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan early on. We disbanded the Army in Iraq, which was a mistake, and we provided arms in Afghanistan without knowing anything about who we were providing arms to, like the warlords.”
While other GOP senators accuse President Barack Obama of responding timidly to the Libyan conflict, Graham refuses to pile on.
“Now is not the time to be overly critical,” Graham said. “I don’t want to make this a partisan deal. I think a no-fly zone (to block Gadhafi’s warplanes) makes plenty of sense, but there is bipartisan opposition to introducing weapons.”
Obama said Friday that he’d moved swiftly to freeze $30 billion in Libyan assets, led the way for U.N. economic sanctions and conferred with NATO allies on possible military steps from an arms embargo to imposing a no-fly zone over Libya to weaken Gadhafi’s air power.
“Any time I send United States forces into a potentially hostile situation, there are risks involved and there are consequences,” Obama said. “And it is my job as president to make sure that we have considered all those risks.”
At a private breakfast with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week, Graham discussed U.S. options in Libya and the Obama administration’s broader response to democratic uprising elsewhere in the Middle East.
“She’s doing a wonderful job,” Graham said. “I think she’s been an outstanding secretary of state.”
Graham said he and Clinton agreed that “the international community needs to sanction whatever we do” in Libya, including imposition of a no-fly zone, which would require military strikes to take out Gadhafi’s anti-aircraft missiles and other air-defense systems.
That stance by Graham also differs from his position in Iraq, where he was a strong supporter of unilateral military intervention under President George W. Bush.
“Iraq had defied a no-fly zone and was shooting at American planes,” Graham said. “The world thought it was developing weapons of mass destruction.”
Graham doesn’t believe the U.N. Security Council will sign off on a no-fly zone over Libya because of opposition by China and Russia, so he’s looking to NATO and the European Union.
Graham’s hopes were dampened Friday when, at an emergency EU summit on Libya in Brussels, Belgium, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuffed efforts by British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to unify behind a no-fly zone and other hard-line options.
Clinton planned to meet with Libyan opposition leaders this week during a trip to Egypt and Tunisia, where she’ll also confer with reformists who toppled authoritarian governments in those nations in the weeks before the Libyan uprising started last month.
Graham acknowledged that his caution on Libya is influenced by his respect for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has said that even steps short of direct military invention in Libya – such as imposing a no-fly zone – would be hard to pull off.
Another key Obama administration figure, national intelligence director James Clapper, angered Graham last week when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Gadhafi would likely defeat opposition forces in Libya.
“I think over time, over the long time, that the regime will prevail,” Clapper told senators.
Graham immediately called for Clapper’s resignation.
“The situation in Libya remains tenuous, and the director’s comments on Gadhafi’s staying power are not helpful to our national security interests,” Graham said. “His comments will make the situation more difficult for those opposing Gadhafi. It also undercuts our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Graham’s response was “based on a real misinterpretation” of Clapper’s comments.
“Director Clapper stated what is true – that Colonel Gadhafi is hunkering down,” Carney said.
Graham has made more than a dozen trips to Iraq and Afghanistan since Bush sent U.S. troops there, sometimes as a military lawyer serving active duty as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
Many of Graham’s journeys to the war zones have been with Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican whom Obama defeated in 2008 in the White House race, and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who was Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s running mate in 2004.
The three senators have formed a unified front over the last decade on virtually every major national security issue, from detention and prosecution of alleged terrorists to the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet Graham’s name was conspicuously absent from a March 4 joint statement in which McCain and Lieberman urged tougher U.S. action in Libya.
“The United States must not be passive at this critical moment in history,” the two senators said. “From Bosnia to Rwanda, we know that the international community has in the past been too slow to react to situations like the one unfolding in Libya, with awful and unspeakable costs in human life. For both moral and strategic reasons, we must not repeat this mistake.”
McCain and Lieberman have split with Graham in advocating, either alone or in concert, more aggressive U.S. steps in Libya:
Recognizing the opposition to Gadhafi as Libya’s legitimate government. Graham says he’s “open to the idea.”
Targeted bombing of Libyan assets. Graham wants to start with a no-fly zone, with “other options on the table.
Diverting some of the frozen Gadhafi assets to the Libyan rebels.
Graham “would have to think about it.”
Most significantly, Graham is wary of calls by Lieberman and McCain to supply weapons to the rebels.
“I don’t feel comfortable providing arms to a bunch of opposition forces when I don’t know their makeup or agenda,” he said. “So we might lose control of the arms, and we may wind up empowering people who become the enemy of the Libyan people over time.”