Tennessee Senator Bob Corker joked when he took over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month that he was more used to swinging a hammer than a gavel.
The former contractor and one-time mayor of Chattanooga freely admits he knew little about foreign affairs before being elected senator in 2006. Now he’s one of the most important voices in Washington on foreign policy.
Corker says there’s plenty of overlap between the worlds of business and foreign affairs. Take last Sunday, when he was in Munich for a conference on defense:
“One of the leading German investors in Tennessee wanted to sit down with me and talk about some of the issues that they’re dealing with.”
But Corker says the greatest benefit to leading the Foreign Relations Committee is a better understanding of how situations halfway around the globe can affect the security of Tennesseans. Here’s what he says about the fight taking place in faraway Syria against the terrorist group ISIS:
“They’ve been effective in pulling people into their cause over the social media. … Will they be able to cause people, just through social media, to want to do things to disrupt the everyday way of life that Tennesseans and Americans lead?”
The fight with ISIS has been one of the main things on Corker’s plate. He and other lawmakers have asked the Obama administration for a formal request to use force against ISIS, a move that would give Congress more oversight of the conflict.
But Corker shies away from calling for more intervention.
“I mean we are already – there are programs that have been under way for some time. I think there’s a question of if we can actually find, especially, an Arab face on the ground. Arab countries that are willing to be on the ground, are there things that the professionalism of the United States Special Forces and other things that might be used, to not necessarily be on the front lines or to be any part of infantry, to just leverage those efforts. “
Q: When you start talking about Special Forces and it sounds like maybe advisers, you’re potentially talking about people from Tennessee being sent to Syria.
“I’m not talking about anything now. I’m talking about a legal authorization that will help guide how we move ahead. And we’ll begin that debate as soon as the president sends an authorization forward, which is usually the first step.”
The senator has also been involved in the debate over Iran and its nuclear program. Corker fears negotiations with Iran could leave the country just a “screwdriver turn” from completion of a nuclear weapon.
“The question is, if we do not reach a deal with Iran and if they move ahead proactively with their nuclear program… what would we do? And I think the military option would then be on the table.
“I will say I’m familiar with how that might come about, should it come about. … But I can assure you the types of activities that have been looked at don’t involve boots on the ground.”
Q: Not even, like, Special Forces or something like that?
“No, no. Never been discussed.”
Outside the Middle East, Corker has been more hawkish than the Obama administration on the conflict in Ukraine. While the White House has favored sending the country non-lethal military gear, such as night vision goggles, Corker believes the United States should provide weapons to stop the influx of tanks and fighters from Russia.
“Certainly we need to help them with lethal, defensive support. We do. … We have to remember, the United States and Europe lured them west, and that is what caused this to occur.
“This says a lot about us, says a lot about us. … We agreed to protect their territorial boundaries if they gave up their nuclear arms – 1,420 nuclear weapons they had at that time.
“Other countries, watching this, if we’re not willing at this moment to be with them in their time of need, I assure you other countries around the world will be very unwilling to give up their nuclear arms when they see what has happened.”
But as in Syria, Corker stops short of saying the United States should send more military personnel to Ukraine.
It’s this sort of balancing act Tennesseans can expect as Corker extends his grasp over foreign affairs.