Sen. Corker Wants More Lasting Show Of Force In Eastern Europe

May 30, 2014
Originally published on May 30, 2014 1:10 pm

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had tough words following President Obama's West Point speech and NPR interview about foreign policy goals.

Corker said Obama hasn't responded strongly enough to crises in Ukraine and Syria, and he doesn't think the speech was strong either.

"I just didn't hear that clarity, so I would throw that speech in the trash can. I would do something far stronger when I'm in Europe, and then I would back it up," Corker told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

The president travels to Europe next week.


Interview Highlights

On the U.S. effort to punish Russia for intervening in Ukraine and seizing Crimea.

Our sanctions were very weak. I think you read about the economic forum that just occurred in St. Petersburg where one of the isolating, quote, oligarchs there were laughing about the fact that the sanctions not only didn't have a lot of impact on them but that other companies were clamoring to do business with them from other countries. So we'll see.

On what the president should be doing that he's not about Ukraine

We certainly need to lay out plans to strengthen NATO. We certainly need to challenge Western Europe, which has become very lax in their support of NATO and we also need to show what we ourselves are going to do relative to strengthening the ability of Eastern Europe to stand up to ... aggression by Russia.

There are numbers of ways [to show that.] Is there a reconfiguration [of troops] since really Western Europe doesn't feel any kind of threat at present? Eastern Europe does.

So there's the military piece ... making sure that Russians understand that these are not places like Crimea was but these are places that, coming into, there would be problems.

Here's the thing, look, I was very distraught, candidly, over our policy in Syria. And I think it's lead to much of the world looking at the United States and wondering if we are credible ...

On whether both he and Obama see that U.S. foreign policy goals are somewhere between going to war and doing nothing

Well when it's framed in this way; Let me go back to Syria last August and September there was a red line that was established and immediately it became the world's red line, not America's. [Steve Inskeep: The president effectively said that use of chemical weapons was a red line. It was presumed that meant he would order a military strike if there was a use of chemical weapons, and then he did not.] So I think it's sort of in that air of permissiveness, the lack of clarity, that people miscalculate and really bad things can happen down the road. So that's what I'm concerned about. This is something that's heartfelt, it's of deep concern on both sides of the aisle, and again, I hope when he goes to Europe, he'll speak in a different way but then I hope he will also follow up in a different way.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's hear a response to President Obama's speech on foreign policy this week. The president pushed back against critics in his talk at West Point and in an NPR interview.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Afterward, we reached the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee says the president has not responded strongly enough to crises in Ukraine and Syria. And he didn't think the speech was strong, either.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SENATOR BOB CORKER: I just didn't hear that clarity. So I would throw that speech in the trashcan. I would do something far stronger when I'm in Europe, and then I would back it up.

INSKEEP: The president travels next week to Europe. Corker spoke of the US effort to punish Russia for intervening in Ukraine and ceasing Crimea.

CORKER: Our sanctions were very weak. I think you read about the economic forum that just occurred in St. Petersburg, where one of the isolated, quote, "oligarchs" there was laughing about the fact that the sanctions not only didn't have a lot of impact on them, but that other companies were clamoring to do business with them from other countries. So we'll see.

INSKEEP: When you mention that economic forum, that was a forum that the administration lobbied American businesses not to attend and it's my understanding many did not. But it sounds like you feel the president should be doing much more. What's a concrete and practical action you think the president should be taking, as regards Ukraine, that the president is failing to take?

CORKER: We certainly need to lay out plans to strengthen NATO. We certainly need to challenge Western Europe, which has become very lax in their support of NATO. And we also need to show what we ourselves are going to do relative to strengthening the ability of Eastern Europe to, to stand up, to defend against, to aggression by Russia.

INSKEEP: How does the U.S. show that?

CORKER: We need to - oh, gosh, there's numbers of ways. I mean, is there a reconfiguration? Since really the West, Western Europe doesn't feel any kind of threat at present. Eastern Europe does.

INSKEEP: Oh, you mean moving more U.S. troops into NATO allies that are in Eastern Europe. That's what you would like to see, not small numbers but large numbers.

CORKER: That is a very strong possibility and probability. So there's the military piece - and I'm not talking about troops going into action, which he also uses as a strawman. But making sure that Russians understand that these are not places like Crimea was, but these are places that, you know, coming into there would be problems.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by strawman? When you say the president is using the prospect of...

CORKER: Well, here's the thing...

INSKEEP: ...War as a strawman.

CORKER: I think that, look, I was very distraught, candidly, over our policy in Syria. And I think it's led to much of the world looking at the United States and wondering whether we were credible. But when you say these things, the president immediately tries to say well, my critics are people who want to send our men and women in uniform into conflict, which is not the case.

INSKEEP: Let me just play a bit of tape from our interview with the president this week, in which he insisted that he is willing, when necessary, to go to war. But it's a question of not needing to do it all the time. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, there are going to be times where we might have to go to war. And that's why I think it's very important for us not to get into these simplistic ways of thinking about it. Either we pull back entirely and we're isolationist, or alternatively, every problem around the world is ours to manage.

INSKEEP: Are you both effectively saying the same thing? That the answer here is somewhere here in the middle for the United States. Between, somewhere between going to war and doing nothing and you can't agree on exactly what the middle ground is?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CORKER: Well, I - when it's framed in the way that it was just framed. But let me go back in Syria last August and September. There was a red line that was established and repeatedly it became the world's red line, not America's.

INSKEEP: The president effectively saying that the use of chemical weapons was a red line. It was presumed that that meant he would order a military strike if there was use of chemical weapons, and then he did not.

CORKER: That's correct. So, I think it's in that sort of air of permissiveness, the lack of clarity, that people miscalculate. And really bad things can happen down the road. So that's what I'm concerned about. This is something that's heartfelt. It's a deep concern, on both sides of the aisle. And again, I hope when he goes to Europe, he'll speak in a different way, but then I hope he'll also follow up in different way.

INSKEEP: Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. Thanks very much.

CORKER: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.