Corker as Change Agent 

The Senator had a yuuge moment of national importance last week; on the Presidency, Afghanistan, and other matters, he may yet again.

Corker in 2011, discoursing on Afghanistan

Jackson Baker

Corker in 2011, discoursing on Afghanistan

As has been the case more often than not, Tennessee possesses political figures of great potential to influence national policy. A case in point is the state's junior U.S. Senator, Bob Corker, who holds the pivotal position of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Like many of his Senatorial colleagues, Corker often includes in his prepared remarks veritable rabbit-warrens of ambivalence that, in ordinary discourse, happily, he can discard in favor of plain talk.

A case of that occurred last week when the Senator was in Tennessee in the aftermath of President Trump's awkward rhetorical attempts to suggest a moral equivalence in the clash between white nationalists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In Knoxville on Wednesday, faced with a battery of reporters, Corker was asked about the president's remarks and promptly began to equivocate.

He and the president had a "healthy relationship," Corker said. "Each of us has our own style. We go about things in a different way."

Pressed a little harder, he said, "I did not see them [Trump's comments]. I don't see a lot of television, I apologize ... Look, I respond in my own way. My comments are the ones I focus on, and I think the media does a plenty good job and has plenty of panelists on and others giving editorial comment about other peoples' comments and mine."

Pressed still further later on, the senator said, "Look, I let the president's comments speak for themselves. There are plenty of people who editorialize about those. I'm responsible for my comments and how I feel, and people editorialize about those, too ... I mean I don't know what ginned up the event in Charlottesville except that there was a lot of hate on display there. Again, certainly it needs to end."

A final query came from a reporter in Knoxville who was still unsatisfied and asked Corker if it wasn't time to take a stand rather than "walking in the middle of the line trying to make everybody happy."

The senator's response? "I just think everybody has to speak on these issues the way they feel best."

Then came Thursday and another Q and A with reporters after Corker's speech to the Rotary Club of home-town Chattanooga. Similar questions came the senator's way, and he answered in slow, measured sentences that sounded less cautious than the product of serious overnight deliberation.

"I do think there needs to be some radical changes. The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability or the competence he needs to demonstrate. ... He has not demonstrated that he understands what has made this nation great. ... Without the things I just mentioned happening, the nation is going to go through great peril. ... We should hope ... that he does some self-reflection, does what is necessary to demonstrate some stability, to demonstrate some competence, to demonstrate that he understands the character of our nation. ..."

Corker went on: "We're at the point where there have to be radical changes at the White House itself. It has to happen. I think the president needs to take stock of the role he plays in our nation and move beyond himself.

"We need to speak to what's good in our nation. Neo-Nazi groups, KKK groups ... are not what's good in our nation. I don't think that the president has appropriately spoken to the nation on this issue, and sometimes he gets in a situation where he doubles down to try to make a wrong a right. I think he's done that in this case. I would ask that he take stock of who he is as president of all the people in our nation."

The world promptly took notice, with CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post in the van and all weighing in yuuge! History may demonstrate that it was Corker's studied afterthought that stirred the pendulum of change into motion. Or not.

Just as history may yet demonstrate that it was the senator from Tennessee who, at some point in his tenure as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (or as ranking member if the Democrats are to take over the Senate after 2018) played a fundamental role in resolving the seemingly unending Afghanistan quagmire.

The senator issued a statement in a press release following Trump's televised Monday night address in which the president vowed to keep on keeping on in Afghanistan.

Corker's statement was as follows:

"I had the opportunity to talk with Secretary Tillerson in advance of this evening's address, and while I look forward to receiving additional details, I support the direction President Trump laid out tonight for the U.S. role in Afghanistan.

"While there are certainly substantial questions about whether Afghanistan has the capacity over time to provide stable governance to its people, this more focused plan provides the U.S. military with the flexibility it needs to help the Afghan military regain momentum. It also utilizes a conditions-based approach for our military, which should lead to better diplomatic outcomes and ensures engagement with regional partners, especially Pakistan and India, giving us a better opportunity for success."

I could not help but contrast that seemingly acquiescent statement with Senator Corker's extended and thoughtful response on the Afghanistan — and Pakistan — matter when I talked with him about it in Washington in 2011. Here is a relevant portion of those remarks:

"I think we've known for a long time that Pakistan plays both sides. They've been able to get aid from America by being a bad actor. It's a leverage they use. I just left a Foreign Relations Committee meeting where I talked about this. Whether they're in cahoots or incompetent, this has been an embarrassment for their country, and it provides a relationship-changing opportunity.

"The fact is, if you travel through Afghanistan, as I've done many times, and you talk to our military leaders, they're unbelievably frustrated, because they're fighting a war in a country where our enemies are not. And on the other hand we're providing aid to a country where our enemies are. To me, and this is what I really pressed hard in this last hearing on, this is where our focus needs to be.

"[Pakistan is] where all the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership [is], their accounting network, they're all there. ... So to me this creates an opportunity for us to bear down on ridding that country of the enemies that we're fighting in Afghanistan but happen to reside in Pakistan.

"I've been very skeptical about the efforts there for some time. ... [O]ur men and women in uniform, I hold them in highest esteem in carrying out their mission, but much of what they're fighting [in Afghanistan] is just criminality. ... So much of what our soldiers are fighting there is criminality. Again, the head of the monster, if you will, exists in Pakistan. ..."

Nothing said Monday night by Trump or by any of the many respondents to the president's address, including Corker himself, equals the wisdom of perceptiveness of that 2011 analysis, and there is no reason to believe the senator's views have changed appreciably.

Meanwhile, here is a fresh view of the matter from another Tennessean, 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen:

"... After 16 years of war, we have not made great progress because there have been issues of corruption in the Afghan government and the Afghan people are ambivalent toward their government and toward the eventual outcome of the war. ... My thoughts are with the soldiers who were watching tonight's speech and their fellow soldiers, some of whom will sacrifice their lives in what is a war without a likelihood of success. God bless our American troops."

Rep. Cohen's view is entirely consistent with what Senator Corker said lo, those six years ago, and may yet, in some way or another, have the opportunity to say again. Perhaps, it is often rumored, as a presidential candidate himself.

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