Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks during a Greenville Chamber luncheon Sept. 5, 2013, about possible U.S. military action in Syria on Thursday, September 5, 2013.
(Photo: Mykal McEldowney, The Greenville (S.C.) News)
GREENVILLE, S.C. - South Carolina's senior senator continued to argue for U.S. military intervention in Syria in a speech to 300 Chamber of Commerce members here while acknowledging his position is unpopular with voters.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also said Congress is not likely to authorize a strike, predicting a close vote in the Senate where the resolution is likely to come up next week and a larger margin in the House where the timing is less certain.
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"God has blessed us," he said Thursday. "It is inconvenient, it is hard, it is complicated, and it can be wearying. But there is no substitute for American leadership."
Graham, whose three opponents in next year's Republican primary are all on record against U.S. action, said he understands Americans are war weary and reluctant to battle again in the Middle East.
But doing nothing in Syria will embolden Iran, a Syrian ally, in its push to develop nuclear weapons, he argued, and those weapons could wind up in the hands of Islamic terrorists determined to kill Americans.
"I don't want boots on the ground, and I don't need an open-ended military engagement," he said.
Graham, an Air Force veteran and national security hawk, has been in the middle of the nation's debate about how to respond to the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria.
He has argued passionately for a limited U.S. military strike to diminish Syrian leader Bashar Assad and turn the tide of battle to the moderate faction of rebels opposing Assad's regime.
Graham met with President Barack Obama on the issue on Labor Day and said he's having a dinner Sunday for Vice President Joe Biden and 13 or 14 Republicans.
Obama resisted earlier calls to get involved in the Syrian civil war. But now the president is seeking congressional blessing for military intervention in the wake of the Aug. 21 chemical attack that he blames on Assad.
Graham also argued at the chamber lunch that events in the Middle East can affect average Americans because of the threat from Islamic terrorists there and because the United States still depends on Mideast oil.
He told chamber members he doesn't know why leaders such as Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden embrace extreme ideology.
"I cannot tell you why, other than there is good and evil in the world," Graham said. "And every time good people ignore evil, we wind up regretting it."
Graham also argued that the king of Jordan, the only moderate on Israel's border, is threatened because of a flood of Syrian refugees.
Doing nothing after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people would send a signal to "North Korea and Iran that we don't really care about weapons of mass destruction being utilized," he said.
Graham drew a standing ovations from the polite, business-centric crowd as he was introduced and wrapped up his speech.
"I think there needs to be some type of action, whether it's a military strike or something," said Tim Reed, owner of Margin Holdings in Greenville. "They need to know we're serious and that we're not going to back down."
Toby Stansell, owner of Acumen IT, said Graham made the case that what happens in the Middle East could affect everyday life here.
But others said they still were unsure about any military action.
"I do think from a foreign relations standpoint that we're backed into a bit of a corner," said David Sudduth of Bon Secours St. Francis Health System and a member of Greenville City Council. "But I still don't think the fact that we're backed into a corner should force us to make a bad decision."
Tim Justice of Rescom Construction said he doesn't know where he stands right now.
"I do know that something has to be done," Justice said. "We have to show the world that we're still strong and we're going to stand behind what's right. And if we don't, I think it could bring trouble to our shores."