Inside Senator Bob Corker’s Realist Doctrine
WASHINGTON – It was a rare and dramatic moment of Congressional foreign policy activism. On June 26, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, singlehandedly blocked all U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and five other Arab regimes until the public feud between those countries and Qatar ended. With no resolution in sight, Corker’s decision to withhold consent has prevented the White House from shoring up military ties with Saudi Arabia. Corker’s move came just two weeks after 47 of his Senate colleagues objected to arms sales to Riyadh in a tight vote, with many citing human rights violations and the country’s “indiscriminate killing” in Yemen. At the time, Corker insisted that Saudi Arabia had not intentionally bombed civilians and sided with 52 other lawmakers to proceed with the arms deal.
The rollercoaster month highlighted how a lawmaker from Tennessee, with a worldview distinct from the neoconservatives who typically dominate GOP foreign policy, wields significant influence over U.S. diplomacy. Welcome to Senator Corker’s realpolitik foreign policy doctrine: maintaining strong ties with U.S. allies while rejecting arguments to prioritize human rights concerns when implementing sensitive international agreements.
During a sit-down interview with Jewish Insider in his Senate office, the affable Corker explained that he is neither “an ideologue or a neo-con” but rather a “pragmatic realist.” The Chairman emphasized that foreign governments have their owns strategic needs, which must be met before reaching any agreement. “I am a business guy and want to constantly figure out ways of advancing our national interest, but I am not locked into an ideological frame,” he said.
Corker’s approach — privileging national interest and realism over ideology — has disappointed some human rights activists. Stephen Mclnerney, Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), explained, “Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa in general have never really been a priority for Senator Corker.” Unlike Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mclnerney says Corker has withheld significant public pressure against the Egyptian government for its political repression, and hasn’t held a single committee hearing in the 115th Congress to highlight President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s human rights violations.
Henry Nau, Professor of Political Science at George Washington University and an expert on foreign policy realism, explained that a reluctance to lambast Cairo on human rights is consistent with the realist viewpoint citing former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a model. “Don’t mess around the internal affairs of other countries. That just makes it more difficult to cope with conflicts and stabilize the status quo,” Nau asserted.
The clash between democratization and realism reached a tipping point in March when the U.S. lifted human rights restrictions on a weapons deal and permitted the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain. For Corker, this was a welcome change. “We have had a longstanding position in our office that human rights should be dealt with separate and apart from arms sales,” he noted in a bid to prioritize Washington’s security ties with Gulf allies. Human Rights Watch has assailed Bahrain for jailing opposition activists along with security forces’ “disproportionate” use of violence in its ongoing crackdown on dissent. Mclnerney believes that arms sales could be used as leverage to propel change from authoritarian regimes regarding human rights violations. But Corker has a different view: “We have just tried to compartmentalize the sales of arms as not part of a human rights issue.”
A balancing act on Israel and Iran
Corker has tried to adopt a more realpolitik strategy putting aside ideological concerns in favor of maintaining productive ties with both Israel, its neighboring Arab states and international institutions. In contrast to conservative lawmakers — Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) — Corker declined to co-sponsor legislation that would defund the United Nations after the 2016 United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSC 2334) criticized Israeli policy. The Tennessee lawmaker has not supported S.11, legislation demanding the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move many Arab states oppose. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker could have advanced either bill but never gave the legislation a markup opportunity or committee vote.
At the same time, Corker marshalled support in recent months to advance the Taylor Force Act out of committee, legislation that would cut U.S. economic aid to the Palestinian Authority until they cease payments to families of terrorists. “This legislation will force the P.A. to make a choice: either face the consequences of stoking violence or end this detestable practice immediately,” Corker stated in support for the bill. The Taylor Force Act passed Corker’s committee earlier this month by a 17-4 bipartisan margin and has since gained the backing of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Former Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), who previously served with Corker on the SFRC, praised the Senator’s commitment to gaining bipartisan support for the legislation. Coleman commended Corker for “bringing a deep commitment (to Israel) but always proceeding in a thoughtful, pragmatic way, which I respect.”
Despite working to advance the Taylor Force Act, Corker’s rhetoric on the Middle East is distinct from the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party. “Having a military presence in the West Bank ad infinitum–forever–by Israel is really something different than a two state solution,” Corker cautioned. Corker does not expect a quick resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and sympathized with the challenges facing the Jewish state. “I understand that we are not going to move to no security in the West Bank,” Corker added.
As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker worked to block the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran. The Chairman cited the 2015 Iran review bill, which required the White House to submit the nuclear deal before Congress for a vote of approval before sanctions could be lifted. “We were able to pass a law 98-1 that gave us the ability to try to vote and stop it,” he recalled. “It put in place a 90 day delay in the agreement being implemented, which infuriated the Obama administration and forced them to come forth with all of the details of the agreement in advance. That was the first time that I can remember in the ten and a half years that I’ve been here, that we took back power from the executive branch.”
However, some Republicans argue that Corker did not fight hard enough against the deal. “Corker took a middle of the road approach on Iran, being very careful not to the rock the boat in any direction,” a former GOP staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, asserted. “As a ranking member and then as a chairman, he never did all he could to hold the line against the Obama administration to try to prevent a bad deal with Iran.” The Congressional aide recalled a 2014 Republican effort to vote on an additional Iran sanctions bill to thwart the agreement. Corker was one of three Republican Senators who declined to sign a letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) demanding a vote. Nonetheless, earlier this year Corker pushed forward bipartisan legislation backed by AIPAC that tightened sanctions against Iran and protested Tehran’s ballistic missile program.
Juggling independence and close ties with the Trump administration
Corker, who was in the running for Secretary of State in the days leading up to the inauguration, has sought to establish a close working relationship with the Trump administration. Jared Kushner, a senior White House advisor and the President’s son-in-law, told Jewish Insider in an emailed statement, “Senator Corker is a leading voice on some of the most serious issues facing our country and provides valuable guidance, advice and input both when he agrees and disagrees with us. It has been a tremendous honor to work with him on various projects including the President’s first international trip.”
After Trump’s overseas trip to the Middle East and Europe in May, Corker noted, “I could not be more pleased with his first trip. The trip was executed to near perfection.” Yet, the Tennessee lawmaker has since offered subtle criticism of the President’s foreign policy across the globe. Although Trump has repeatedly tried coercing North Korea to give up its nuclear program by boosting sanctions, Corker cautioned, “The intelligence community would likely tell you that there is no amount of economic pressure that you can put on Kim to get him to change trajectories.” Furthermore, after Trump divulged classified intelligence to Russian officials — originally obtained from Israel — Corker acknowledged that the White House was in a “downward spiral.” While the Trump administration pressured lawmakers to dilute sanctions against Russia after Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential elections, Corker remained firm. He worked with both Republicans and Democrats to pass a sanctions bill targeting Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Last month, in the midst of negotiations to advance the Taylor Force Act, Corker met with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy for Middle East peace. Recalling the discussion, Corker appeared to lack the Trump administration’s enthusiasm to invest the White House’s limited resources on Israeli-Palestinian talks. “It’s interesting to me that they are pursuing it (Israeli-Palestinian peace), but there are a lot of other issues that I think could be resolved and are resolvable. I don’t think this one, in the short term, is one of those,” Corker asserted. While some in the Trump administration may be trying to secure the “ultimate deal” for ideological reasons, Corker’s focus on pragmatic goals in the turbulent Middle East highlights his realism doctrine.
When Corker initially entered Congress, “he questioned the value of being in the Senate,” noted Coleman, who currently serves as Chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “I don’t know if he found the Senate that exciting: there was a lot of talk and not a lot of action.” Yet, Corker’s rise to Chairman of Foreign Relations has now offered him a substantive and influential role in shaping U.S. foreign policy.