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Syria Elevates Corker’s Foreign Policy Role

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is using his perch as the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to carve out a niche for himself as a go-to congressional voice on the crisis in Syria.

Corker, who took the top slot on the panel in January, is in a unique position to remake the role, which was long held by former Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana.

In his final years in the Senate, Lugar lost sway with his GOP colleagues. He had been a vocal supporter of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy approach in 2008, when Obama was a candidate against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. With the more mild-mannered Lugar at the top of the panel, more hawkish, television-friendly members like McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., dominated the party’s foreign policy conversation.

But Corker has been all over the TV news circuit in recent days to discuss the escalating situation in Syria, making appearances on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and “The Daily Rundown,” “Fox News Sunday,” “CBS This Morning” and NBC’s “The Today Show.”

On Tuesday, he said he had a personal phone call with “the appropriate person” at the White House with whom he reviewed the administration’s potential response to the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons attack on its people.

“I did receive a call yesterday from the appropriate person and I think the White House has confirmed that they believe that to be consultation,” Corker said on MSNBC, referring not-so-obliquely to Obama. “I support intervention here; something that’s proportional, that’s surgical, that responds to what has happened.”

Corker said he does not believe Congress will be called back to Washington to vote on any military authorization, but he said he wishes lawmakers would come back, even if Congress has not had the strongest track record on these issues.

“If you look at the debate in Washington  — and candidly, the feckless nature of Congress over time relative to foreign policy — some of the irresponsible comments that end up being made by folks who end up having no ownership over what we’re doing in this regard. I actually wish they would call us back and ask for authorization in advance,” said Corker. “I do know they’re going to build a much stronger case this time, I know they’re going to declassify some information.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney reiterated Tuesday that the administration would release as soon as this week a declassified intelligence report substantiating the administration’s assertion that Bashar Assad’s regime is responsible for the suspected chemical attacks last week.

But Corker’s position at the top of the foreign relations panel gives him a growing authority and sets a place for the pragmatist on a stage usually crowded with GOP hawks.

“The guy’s influence is growing on these issues and the Syria issue in particular will be one where he’ll play an outsized role in the Republican Conference and the Senate,” said a Republican aide. “Since he’s ranking member, it’s only natural for him to play a big role in these things, but I think that this issue will be a real opportunity for him as the ranking member to step up.”

Corker talked on Tuesday about his hope that the administration would be more transparent with Congress about its plans for Syria, especially given that the White House began its engagement in Libya, for example, with good will that “dissipated.” He also emphasized that America and its allies should be careful to support the moderate opposition and to avoid putting boots on the ground, making decisions that do not cause [the U.S.] to be mired down in a civil war.”

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