The focus on Afghanistan strategy shifted today to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Senate Armed Services Committee is hearing testimony from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. With this shift of attention, The New Republic has put together an interesting list of the most influential members of Congress on Afghanistan—those men (because they are all men) who have a heavy hand in shaping the opinion of their peers and the public. Mostly I think their list is right: Carl Levin, Dana Rohrabacher, Russ Feingold, Ike Skelton, John McCain, and John Murtha. Each man has a unique and powerful voice. But there's one glaring omission: Lindsey Graham.
Graham probably spends more time with the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other member of Congress. As a reservist in the Air Force, he's completed several short stints on the ground in both countries. He's deeply engaged in military issues; they're the subject of endless hours of debate between him and his good buddy McCain. In terms of public comment, Graham has basically become the Heather Locklear of Sunday-morning political talk shows—the "special guest star" who appears in every episode. But perhaps most important, Graham's GOP colleagues respect him on these issues. He's smart and broadly liked, but moreover he's persistent in his convictions. In a debate in which Republicans harbor impulses to let an unpopular war simply become Obama's problem, I'm told Graham is one of the few voices arguing for the need to support the troops and the mission. While some GOPers are tempted to hang the president out to dry on Afghanistan, Graham firmly says no. "This is America's war," Graham told me a few weeks ago, adding that he wants to find ways to support the president and secretary of defense.
Graham is hardly an Obama cheerleader. Following the West Point speech, Graham offered praise for the additional deployments but had serious concerns about the exit strategy. Graham has criticized the president on a variety of topics, including blasting him for being "timid and passive" on Iran. But he's also shown a degree of willingness to judge issues on their merit: he voted in favor of confirming Justice Sonia Sotomayor and he's championing climate-change legislation in the Senate. Many observers have noted that he seems more McCain than McCain these days. Obama has invited Graham for a one-on-one meeting at the White House today, perhaps in recognition of his potential value in garnering full-throated GOP support for the surge.
Regardless of whether you agree with Graham, he's a force on this issue, and his name really should be on that list.