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Graham’s Desperate Use of the “Credibility” Argument

DoD Photo By Glenn Fawcett, Released

Lindsey Graham made a revealing comment at the Munich security conference over the weekend:

I don’t know how this will end if you give [Ukraine] defensive capability, but I know this: I will feel better [bold mine-DL] because when my nation was needed to stand up to the garbage and to stand by freedom I stood by freedom. (quote starts at 33:42)

There wasn’t much else to Graham’s “analysis” beyond this. The comments were revealing in a few ways. First, Graham admits that he doesn’t know what sending arms to Ukraine will do, but this doesn’t discourage him from insisting on this course of action. Ultimately, what matters to him here is that it makes him feel better that he took what he thinks is the right side. There is no serious thought given to the consequences of what could go wrong, and it doesn’t concern Graham if things do go wrong, because he will feel better. Nothing could better express the hawks’ self-indulgent, arrogant, and irresponsible approach to foreign policy.

Graham makes a desperate appeal to the “credibility” argument a moment later:

They may die, they may lose, but I’ll tell you what…if somebody doesn’t push back better we’re all gonna lose. Because who would join us in the future? What does an agreement mean anymore when the United States and other world powers sign it? Would you really give up your nuclear weapons? What does this tell the Iranians about our resolve to stop their nuclear program?

In other words, he acknowledges that arming Ukraine may well be useless, but what matters is to demonstrate that the U.S. will make futile gestures of support in order to preserve “credibility” and demonstrate resolve. That’s an appallingly bad argument even for the likes of Graham. One might almost think that these quotes from Graham came from someone trying to parody the worldview of hard-liners, but this really is what Graham said. He has given us a excellent example of why the obsession with “credibility” and resolve is so poisonous and harmful to our policy debates. Worrying about “credibility” in this way is irrational and extremely simplistic, and it amounts to little more than conjuring up very unlikely scenarios to try to scare people into supporting reckless action.

Let’s take Graham’s worries one by one. The willingness of other states to enter into agreements with the U.S. is in no way harmed if the U.S. refuses to send weapons to Ukraine. The value of any particular agreement will depend on the provisions it contains, on the extent of political support for it in the respective countries, and on the obligations that it creates for the different parties. Since Graham seems to be referring to the Budapest memorandum here, it’s worth remembering that the U.S. and U.K. have fulfilled their obligations under that agreement, such as they are, so there can be no question of our having failed to honor the agreement. So how are future agreements imperiled by deciding not to send weapons to Ukraine? The truth is that they are not, and Graham is just trying to con the audience.

Likewise, other states will remain or become allies and clients of the U.S. when they believe it is in their interest to do so. America’s ability to gain support from other states on other unrelated matters is not hampered by refusing to arm the government of a country with the U.S. has no alliance and in which it has few interests. They will recognize that the U.S. has never made any security commitments to Ukraine, and therefore can’t be faulted for “failing” to keep commitments that it never made. The remark about nuclear weapons is a red herring, since Ukraine had not the means to keep the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the USSR, and even if it could have afforded to maintain such an arsenal its possession of those weapons likely would have made it more of a target for Russian interference rather than less of one. Sending weapons to Ukraine tells the Iranians precisely nothing about the determination of the U.S. and other world powers to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program continues to operate within the limits of the NPT, because the two things have nothing to do with one another. This bit about Iran is especially rich coming from Graham, who is one of the leading advocates of new sanctions legislation aimed at sabotaging negotiations with Iran.

Earlier in the panel, Graham had assured the audience that there was a consensus in the U.S. in favor of sending arms to Ukraine, but that isn’t remotely true. Public opinion is strongly against doing this, and there is quite a lot of serious disagreement in D.C. as well. There may be a consensus inside Graham’s hawkish bubble, but most Americans and many of America’s major European allies don’t share these reckless views. Fortunately, all of Graham’s remarks received tepid applause at the conference, and that came from other American hawks seated in the audience. Graham presented the conference with the condensed version of every stupid hawkish talking point from the last year and a half, and his argument went over like a lead balloon.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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