By LANDON WOODROOF
It is not every day that the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee addresses your local Rotary Club meeting.
That is just what happened, though, early Wednesday for members of Brentwood’s Morning Rotary Club.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) shared his thoughts on both foreign and domestic policy to club members, as well as an array of attending local political and civic leaders, at Brentwood’s City Cafe shortly after 7 a.m.
Current tensions involving Syria and North Korea were two of the main topics Corker discussed on the international front, although he saved time to talk about the importance of foreign aid and U.S. relations with other countries as well.
His views on the Trump administration’s response to the challenges of international relations fit a definite pattern. While Corker was somewhat skeptical once on some fronts, but he is much more confident now.
“Honestly, I had some concerns about their foreign policy as they were coming in and some of the comments that were made during the campaign, I’m just being honest,” Corker said. Specifically, he admitted to some initial misgivings about the administration’s views toward NATO, Russia, Syria and, in terms of charges of currency manipulation, China.
In regards to each of those subjects, though, Corker expressed the opinion that the Trump administration had assuaged his doubts and was coming into its own on the world stage in a positive way.
In particular, he asserted confidence in the abilities of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to deal with foreign policy challenges.
“All of them, we have tremendous interaction with, and for what it’s worth I’ve seen what I would call growth in how foreign policy is being looked at and am very pleased in the evolution that has occurred,” he said.
Speaking to the situation in Syria, Corker was adamant that the recent bombing carried out by U.S. forces in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attack on his own people was the right thing to do.
“What recently happened in Syria to me is something that needed to happen,” he said. “I appreciate the fact that they did it in a measured way…proportional to what had happened.”
Corker said he thinks Assad’s chemical attack and the American response was something of a turning point for President Trump.
“I think that in some ways was a transformative moment for him to understand what it means to be commander-in-chief when those kinds of things occur,” he said.
The senator did not get the sense, however, that the chemical attacks had changed Trump’s views about his administration’s travel ban. Speaking of that ban, Corker said he had played a role in getting the Trump administration to take Iraq off of the list of restricted countries, another decision he saw as a sign of positive development within the administration’s foreign policy.
“I shared with them at the time that it’s very counter-productive for us to have that policy with Iraq when we’ve got our men and women in uniform that are really supporting their efforts there,” he said.
On the topic of North Korea, Corker said that China could likely be a key component of U.S. policy going forward.
“Without China, there’s really no way peacefully to deal with North Korea,” he said.
Corker explained that this is because about 90 percent of North Korea’s economic activity is dependent on China.
“So we’ve got to figure out a way to really put the pressure on China to do the things they need to do to put [Kim Jong-Un] under control,” he said.
Corker actually began his talk focusing not on any one foreign policy crisis, but on the more general topic of foreign aid. He just returned from a refugee camp in Uganda where he saw first-hand how aid can sustain people in the throes of great desperation.
“Thank God for the United States of America by the way and other countries who are willing with one percent of the money that is part of our budget to do those things to avoid disasters,” he said.
He later explained how foreign aid is a two-way street in many ways. It serves a humanitarian purpose, but it also serves a national security purpose as well.
That one percent of the budget that goes to foreign aid, Corker said, “is very important to keep the men and women in uniform we cherish so much from being in harm’s way.”
Domestic issues related to spending and the national debt were also a part of Corker’s remarks and answers to audience questions.
One topic that he spoke about at some length related to the seeming unwillingness he sees in Congress to tackle the national debt through the reform of programs like Social Security or Medicare.
“The area I’m disappointed in both Democrats and Republicans in is addressing that issue,” he said. “I see no will, none, to finally address that issue.”
This is especially galling to Corker because he thinks even some “small tweaks” to entitlement programs could have meaningful results.
For instance, he said that raising the retirement age by as little as one or two years could help Social Security stave off insolvency.
Another idea he floated would possibly make a differentiation between blue collar and white collar workers in terms of benefits received. To illustrate this point, Corker imagined a 64 year old roofer who may be in more need of immediate retirement benefits than someone who worked a less physically strenuous job.
“They’re all small tweaks. They’re nothing…that should offend anybody certainly not at a Rotary Club like this, and yet any discussion of that is met with an onslaught of incredible criticism,” he said.
While Corker was more than willing to engage with the potentially perilous subjects of international conflict and entitlement reform, there was one area of discussion the senator wanted no part of: local politics.
At the beginning of the meeting, Brentwood City Commission candidate John Byers had mentioned that he was thankful for the election forum that was going to be held Wednesday night at the LBMC offices.
Later on, after Corker’s prepared remarks, Byers raised his hand and asked a question about the school funding controversy currently exasperating and worrying many Brentwood parents.
“Can you share some of your financial expertise and experience around how counties and cities have worked together to actively engage and solve this kind of issue?” Byers asked.
Corker sidestepped the question.
“As a person who was advertising the debate that is taking place tonight earlier, you are not going to be successful in drawing me into that,” Corker said, good-naturedly, before going into a discussion of the unavoidable challenges that always accompany growth in a community.
Brentwood Morning Rotary Club Vice-President George Campbell said his group had been working on getting Corker to appear at one of its meetings for around two years.
After all that time, “the clouds parted, the waters moved and we were able to get the bridge to the morning rotary to work,” he said.
Corker said he was planning on going to the Rotary International Convention in Atlanta in June to discuss how the organization, which has helped eradicate polio worldwide, could next turn its focus to fighting modern slavery in the form of human trafficking.