U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday he probably would not have backed invading Iraq in 2003 had he known that intelligence claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction were false.
“(W)ould I have launched a ground invasion? Probably not, but that’s yesterday’s thinking,” Graham said on “CBS This Morning,” where he also said he will announce his 2016 presidential plans June 1 in his hometown of Central.
“I’d probably had another approach to (Iraqi president) Saddam (Hussein). ... Hussein was shooting at our airplanes. He was denying (United Nations) inspectors access to sites. He was gassing his own people. He needed to go.
“But if I knew the intelligence was faulty, I would have reconfigured.”
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On the Iraq invasion, Graham — who is hoping his foreign and military affairs experience sets him apart in a crowded field of GOP candidates — is “hedging a little bit by (implying) that he might have done something different had he had the right intelligence,” said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon.
It is as though Graham is saying, “ ‘But we didn't (have the right intelligence), so we did the right thing,’ ” Huffmon said.
Still, with his answer, Graham avoided stumbling on a question that has dogged other GOP White House hopefuls, stuck between trying to distance themselves from an unpopular war and not repudiating Republican President George W. Bush.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the former president’s brother, initially said last week that he backed the invasion, then said he would not have supported it if he had known the weapons intelligence was false.
This month, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, another GOP presidential hopeful, said neither he nor President Bush would have supported the invasion had they known Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. On “Fox News Sunday,” Rubio said invading Iraq was not a mistake, given the information the president had at the time.
Graham is staking out ground as the most hawkish GOP candidate, calling for the United States to send 10,000 troops to Iraq on CNN Monday, after news broke Islamic State terrorists had captured Ramadi after Iraqi security forces fled.
Speaking at a weekend Iowa GOP fundraiser, Graham said, “If I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL (Islamic State), I’m not gonna call a judge. I’m gonna call a drone, and we will kill you.”
The comment was a slap at U.S. Sen. Rand Paul after the Kentucky Republican and would-be GOP nominee said the National Security Agency should get warrants for Americans’ phone records, the Washington Post reported.
Graham blames Democratic President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops for instability in Iraq, while defending Bush’s support of the 12-year-long Iraq war.
Bush’s support for invading Iraq was based on “faulty intelligence ... (that) the entire world believed,” Graham said in a radio interview in New Hampshire last week. “(Bush) made mistakes. He corrected his mistakes.
“Obama leaving Iraq, ignoring the advice of all of his military commanders – he was told what would happen if you leave Iraq with no troops left behind.”
Graham, a soon-to-retire Air Force Reserve colonel, is hoping his military service and foreign policy experience as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee will give him an advantage in the GOP presidential field, particularly if terrorism and national security remain top concerns for voters.
Graham said he will announce June 1 whether he’s running. But he signaled on CBS that his mind is made up.
Asked whether he is running because he sees a deficit of foreign policy smarts among the GOP candidates, Graham said, “I’m running because of what you see on television. I’m running because I think the world is falling apart. I’ve been more right than wrong on foreign policy.
“It’s not the fault of others or the lack of this or that that makes me want to run,” Graham continued. “It’s my ability in my own mind to be a good commander-in-chief.”
Graham, who would be the first South Carolinian to run for president since Seneca native John Edwards in 2004 and 2008 and Greenville native Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, wants foreign policy to play a key role in the 2016 election, and it’s shaping up that way, Winthrop’s Huffmon said.
But Graham and the other candidates will face tougher questions than whether the Iraq invasion was right, given what they now know about the absence of chemical weapons, Huffmon said.
“Once they get out in the general election, somebody is going to ask them about intelligence that indicated that there weren't weapons of mass destruction,” said Huffmon.
That intelligence proved correct but was “ignored” or discredited, the Winthrop political scientist added.
McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed. Reach Self (803) 771-8658.
Graham’s 2016 plans
Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said he will announce whether he is running for president June 1 in Central, the Upstate town where he grew up.