WASHINGTON — In his first wide-ranging public discussion since becoming the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker sold his vision of America's role in the world, pushing an active path in Syria and promising tough scrutiny of future entanglements overseas.
Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of congressional staffers, military officials and defense consultants, Corker described his trips to "a lot of yucky places" and vowed to modernize America's 9/11-era standards for going to war. The setting was the annual conference of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based resource institution focused on national security.
Audience members and Bloomberg News Washington editor Al Hunt interviewed Corker for 45 minutes to kick things off at a five-star hotel two blocks from the White House.
A long way from City Hall, the former Chattanooga mayor said Congress should take "a much more significant and important role as it relates to the deployment of men and women in uniform."
Corker's remarks came in response to a U.S. Army strategist's question about the lack of official declarations of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other modern conflicts.
"I thought his answer was insufficient," the questioner, Lt. Col. Richard M. Wrona Jr., said in an interview after Corker left the stage. "I applaud the senator's emphasis on greater congressional oversight. Nevertheless, a declaration of war, in my mind, would lead to a real national effort for some of these combat operations we've had in the past."
Relaxed in a blue suit, Corker struck a middle-of-the-road political tone, emphasizing a willingness to work with the Obama administration on foreign and fiscal policy. He discussed immigration, recent revelations involving the National Security Agency and America's relationships with China and North Korea.
In his new leadership role, he said, he serves as a go-between to John McCain and Rand Paul, two lawmakers he said represent the GOP's "bipolar" flanks on the foreign relations panel. He showed his independent streak, taking care to thank the man who introduced him for saying he represented "a Republican perspective."
"It would be hard to know what exactly the Republican perspective is now," he said to laughs.
Corker said that if he "had to make a bet today" he'd put his money on President Barack Obama beginning to train and arm Syrian rebels "over the next few days." He advocated against American military intervention, emphatically calling for "no boots on the ground."
That language represented a firmer stance than Corker's Monday letter to the president, which said "I do not support American boots on the ground in Syria at this time."
Corker backs the Syria Transition Support Act of 2013, which passed the foreign relations committee 15-3 on May 21. He said it calls for arming Syrian rebels "that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States."
"There's more going on there than meets the eye," Corker said, adding that America must train "open-minded" rebels so they can defeat extreme factions and control "the balance of power" if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is toppled.
Asked Wednesday about Syria, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said he had "no announcements to make."
"We are constantly evaluating the situation in Syria and the options available to the president when it comes to encouraging a transition there," he said.
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at email@example.com or 423-280-2025.