WASHINGTON – It is the end of an era. For the past decade, three United States Senators have formed a close bond on foreign policy issues and have become a political force that sometimes challenges American presidents.
Known as the “Three Amigos,” they received the nickname from famed military commander David Petraeus before he was forced to resign last month as chief of the Central Intelligence Agency in a sex scandal.
The trio – Democrat Joseph Lieberman and Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham – will be breaking up next month as Lieberman retires from the Senate after 24 years. Graham is particularly concerned that the bipartisan effort could fall apart if other Democrats don’t step up to join the group that gained influence after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon.
“What was a real personal friendship before 9-11 turned into a political bond,” Graham said recently in an interview in his Washington office. “After 9-11, the world changed, and our relationship between me, John, and Joe changed to really trying to be a force to make sure this country never goes through another 9-11. … I don’t know if there will ever be another group like this again in the Senate.”
While liberal Democrats have excoriated Lieberman and voted en masse to defeat him in the 2006 Democratic primary before Lieberman won the general election, McCain and Graham have nothing but admiration for their traveling colleague. Overall, Lieberman estimated that he has taken more than 50 overseas trips with McCain over the past 24 years.
Graham said he hopes Democrats will step forward in the mold of Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a pro-defense Democrat who ran for president twice and served in Congress for 42 years.
“The Democratic Party needs to look itself in the mirror and find somebody that can replace a Joe Lieberman,” said Graham, a conservative from South Carolina. “There’s no shortage of liberal Democrats in the Democratic Party. There is a shortage of national defense folks who believe in national security in dangerous times. Not one person is going to fill that spot, but I’ve got hope. Chris Coons [of Maryland] has been great. [Connecticut Senator Richard] Blumenthal. There’s some folks over there that we’ve got hope for. We need to make sure that younger Republicans like Marco Rubio and Kelly Ayotte step up to the plate on our side.”
But Ned Lamont, the anti-war activist who defeated Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primary before losing in the general election, said he disagrees with the assessment by Graham.
“Alliances in the U.S. Senate are always shifting, and there will be plenty of strange bedfellows to reach across the aisle,” Lamont said. “What does Lindsey Graham want? Folks who want to increase the defense budget? Folks that reach across the aisle on cutting entitlements? … You cannot define strong on defense by how much money you spend or how many countries you invade. Scoop Jackson was strong on defense because he wanted to keep going on the Vietnam War. Does that mean you’re strong on defense?”
While disagreeing on the war, Lamont said that he has moved on from the 2006 race and does not hold any grudges. He said they are now “very civil” to each other and both attended the same dinner recently at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
“In business, you win deals, you lose deals,” Lamont said. “And you talk about it at the industry convention at the end of the year. 2006 is 2006. This is a whole new day and age.”
McCain and Lieberman had already been traveling around the world, particularly at the annual security conference in Munich, when Graham joined the group after winning a Senate race in 2002. The group coalesced during the lengthy debates over the surge in Iraq – the biggest issue in the nation at the time.
“The surge did work,” Graham said of the bitter debates. “We were one vote away from a timetable to withdraw from Iraq, which would have been a disaster, and Joe was the only Democrat who voted with us to keep them from getting 60 votes. That was an act of profile in political courage that you won’t see happen any time soon. A guy risked being run out of his party because he was so worried about losing in Iraq, and that’s why I admire Joe so much.”
Despite the sex scandal surrounding Petraeus, none of the three senators would harshly criticize him. In fact, they keep pictures of him on their walls. McCain brought a reporter over to the far corner of his spacious office to show a signed photograph by Petraeus with the three amigos in Kabul, Afghanistan.
A different picture on Lieberman’s wall says, “For Senator Lieberman, With due appreciation for having our troopers’ backs (and my back) for much of the past decade! With great respect – Dave Petraeus.”
The senators were so close to Petraeus that he told them confidentially – before the public announcement – that he would be headed to Afghanistan to take over the military command after a controversy with General Stanley A. McChrystal that had been sparked by an article in June 2010 in Rolling Stone magazine. McChrystal and his aides had criticized civilian officials like Vice President Joe Biden and others. Petraeus had a previously scheduled meeting in McCain’s office with McCain and Lieberman that morning, and Petraeus asked them not to reveal that he would be heading to Afghanistan to replace McChrystal, Lieberman said.
Slightly more than two years later, Petraeus resigned from the CIA after admitting an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, who had unprecedented access to Petraeus in Afghanistan and back home in Virginia after he took command of the CIA.
“I was really surprised about this episode,” Lieberman said. “He’s human. All of us make mistakes. He acknowledged it. I’ve talked to him since. You can’t say enough good about his wife. She has supported him now. .. The guy is one of the great national heroes that I’ve met. As I say, nobody’s perfect.”
Graham declined the characterization that he and McCain were losing their Democratic wingman.
“Joe is nobody’s wingman,” Graham responded. “We’re losing one, a Democratic voice, but two, a man of incredible conviction who brings into the mix an element that John and I can’t bring. We’re not Democrats. We weren’t the vice presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. We’re losing that. … I hope there are some Democrats out there who will say, ‘I’d like to be like Joe on foreign policy.’ When it came to national security, he was a Scoop Jackson, Jack Kennedy defense hawk.”
Graham added, “Joe is a unique person. He did something that went from being the vice presidential nominee for the Democratic Party to speaking at our convention, and it wasn’t because of anything other than national security.”
After serving together for the past 24 years in the Senate, McCain said he would not compare Lieberman to anyone.
“I rate him, in my view, almost unique,” McCain said. “I’ve never known a finer individual who lives his beliefs every hour of every day. I know that he has his imperfections and character flaws and all of those things. He’s a human being. But I’ve never known anyone like him. I’ve never known anyone with his faith and strength of character.”