Sen. Lindsey Graham, who's taken on tough tasks from immigration reform to climate change, faces another one as he calls for spending billions of dollars overseas on unpopular foreign aid programs that he insists are vital to U.S. national security.
With Congress facing mandatory spending cuts and previously sacrosanct military programs on the chopping block, Graham is trying to protect funding for foreign aid even as most Americans oppose it - 71 percent in a recent poll - and other Republican leaders call for focusing U.S. resources at home.
"It is a tough sell, but you can be pennywise and pound-foolish," Graham, a Republican from Seneca in his second term, told McClatchy.
"This movement to kind of withdraw from the world is not a viable option," Graham said.
"I advocate military engagement when I think it's necessary, but really, you can get more bang for your buck from civilian programs than you can from military engagement most of the time.
"You've got to have more options than just dropping bombs on people."
Graham, a military lawyer as an Air Force Reserve colonel, is the only member of Congress to have served active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's built a reputation as a hawkish senator warrior who backed tough military action in both nations.
Now, as senior Republican on a key appropriations panel for foreign operations, Graham is trying to stave off funding cuts for a softer kind of power exercised by diplomats, civilian training corps and U.S. contractors who help other governments battle AIDS, modernize schools, instruct police, clean water wells and enhance their armed forces.
In an effort to make it more politically palatable, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with whom Graham is close, has rebranded the term "soft power," coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990.
Clinton now insists that her colleagues and aides call the concept "smart power."
But rebranding alone won't protect foreign aid in an era of fiscal austerity with the debt super-committee searching for major funding cuts to meet a Thanksgiving deadline set by Congress.
Danielle Pletka, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy group in Washington, said the country's economic distress has exacerbated Americans' historical reluctance to spend money abroad.
"Of course it's not a priority," she said.
"We've got almost 10 percent unemployment. We've got a country with a massive debt crisis. Peoples' houses are worth two-thirds of what they were worth five years ago."
Aid not popular with GOP
Graham's difficulties go beyond the country's economic woes and the government's budget pressures. He's facing an insurrection within his own party, starting with some of its White House contenders.
Even though the $53.3 billion appropriations bill Graham oversees - mainly for State Department operations and assistance to other governments - is a tiny fraction of the $3.6 trillion in federal spending, GOP candidates at the presidential debate in Las Vegas last week took turns bashing foreign aid.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give it to another country for humanitarian aid," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said to applause.
"We're spending more on foreign aid than we ought to be spending."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that "it's time for this country to have a real debate about foreign aid."
And Rep. Ron Paul, saying foreign aid "should be the easiest thing to cut," urged an end to the roughly $3 billion a year that goes to Israel, saying it makes the staunch ally dependent on the United States.
"It's not authorized in the Constitution that we can take money from you and give it to particular countries around the world," Paul said, again to applause.
These claims came a month after a failed Republican-led effort in Congress to eliminate $1.9 billion in foreign aid in order to fund disaster relief and 10 weeks after most GOP lawmakers accepted a debt-ceiling deal that could impose $600 billion in military cuts.
Those trying to cut foreign aid included Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina's other senator.
"I'm very concerned about the direction my party is taking," Graham said last month at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
"I'm a Ronald Reagan Republican. I would like to shape worldly events rather than watch the world fall apart. That means you have to be engaged."
Taking leadership role
Robert Gallucci, a former assistant secretary of state who held top diplomatic posts under Democratic and Republican presidents, said President George W. Bush's invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have made Americans wary of helping fledgling governments in Libya, Egypt and other Arab Spring hubs where Graham wants to direct U.S. aid.
"In both places, we ended up in the business of nation-building, which is trying to shape a country to make it democratic and safe with an open economy," Gallucci said. "You can't really say that we've been spectacularly successful as yet. So it's going to be a difficult case to make."
Early this year, Graham gave up a seat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee - an important post in a state with large military bases and many retired defense personnel - to move to the Senate Appropriations Committee and become the top Republican on its foreign operations panel.
Graham - who recently returned from Libya, where he met with leaders of the interim government that has replaced dictator Moammar Gadhafi - said modest amounts of aid for pro-democracy forces in the Arab Spring revolts could yield huge dividends for the United States.
"This is a good example of where getting in on the ground floor and forming personal relationships can pay off. It is in our national security interest to provide assistance because the benefit to the Arab Spring of Libya turning out well is enormous," Graham told McClatchy. "Oil coming from an ally rather than an enemy who sponsors terrorism is a dramatic improvement in our economic and national security."
Graham has been influenced by CIA director David Petraeus, the former general who led the wars in Iraq and then Afghanistan.
The two men became close while Graham served more than a dozen active-duty stints as a military lawyer helping those governments set up independent judicial and law-enforcement systems.
Petraeus expanded the two wars' focus beyond military operations, sending small teams of soldiers combined with U.S. aid workers, contractors and other civilians to help provide basic services while enforcing security.
After Graham assumed his appropriations post, Petraeus wrote him a letter stressing the tie between U.S. defense and foreign aid efforts abroad, and the importance of protecting money for civilian and diplomatic outreach.
"This is a national security issue," Petraeus testified in response to Graham at a March hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It's not just a foreign aid issue."
Petraeus' fusion of hard power and soft power is being incorporated in the military universities that educate the nation's future generals.
Lt. Col. Raymond Millen teaches the approach under the rubric of "security sector reform" as a professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, Penn.
"As a result of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military is much more engaged than in the past in helping with governance, providing essential services and reforming the rule of law," Millen said.
Won't help him politically
In Congress, Graham's trying to do his part by protecting the $53.3 billion that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved last month for foreign operations in 2012, the same amount as current funding.
That total is a pittance - one-half of 1 percent - of the Pentagon's almost $1 trillion budget, but without widespread support on Capitol Hill, Graham knows that foreign aid will be an easy target for spending cuts.
He said his closest allies on the debt super-committee, who share his view that "smart power" is as essential to national security as military might, are Sens. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, and John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.
"If we pulled all of our diplomats back to Washington, closed down our development programs and proclaimed to the world that we want nothing more than to be left alone, those who want to do us harm would still find us, and our national security would be even more imperiled," Kerry wrote in a recent column.
"We can either pay now to help brave people build a better, democratic future for themselves, or we will certainly pay later with increased threats to our own national security," he wrote.
Graham understands that his work won't help him politically in South Carolina, among the most conservative states.
"In South Carolina, being subcommittee (senior Republican) of the foreign ops account is about as popular as a toothache," Graham said.
"That's not the road for electoral popularity, but it is something I'm interested in."