Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy

Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy
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On Jan. 8, Sen. Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Overnight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents Senate approves Syria, anti-BDS bill MORE (R-Idaho) was elected as the 66th chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Thus far we know very little about Risch’s priorities for the committee. He cautions that he plans to adopt a much different tone than his predecessor, recently retired Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy MORE (R-Tenn.):

“My repertoire does not include sparring publicly with the president of the United States. For many, many different reasons, I think that’s counterproductive, and you won’t see me doing it.”

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But Risch has yet to articulate a positive agenda about what he intends to focus on. He certainly doesn’t lack for issues. From a trade war with China exacting an increasing toll on the U.S. economy to anxieties about Trump’s repeated rebukes of the transatlantic alliance, seldom has U.S. foreign policy found itself in such a tumultuous moment. 

Up until now, Risch has closely followed the White House lead. He maintains that the 2016 elections were not affected by Russian interference. When President TrumpDonald John TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE declared after his face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Un, “I think he trusts me, and I trust him,” Risch demanded that the media “give [Trump] a break.”

In a notable 2017 interview, Risch flatly stated, “that’s your job,” when asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer if he has a responsibility to speak out against Trump when the president is wrong.

Despite Risch’s reluctance to challenge Trump — even when the president veers wildly off course — this does not presumptively mean Risch cannot carve out an informed foreign policy agenda to influence the White House and selectively push back against particularly appalling decisions.

Based on my experience as a committee staffer under former Chairmen Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenDem strategist says Clinton ‘absolutely’ has a role to play in 2020 It's Bernie Sanders vs. Elizabeth Warren in New Hampshire Harry Reid says he won’t make 2020 endorsement until after Nevada caucus MORE (D-Del.) and John KerryJohn Forbes KerryWarren taps longtime aide as 2020 campaign manager In Virginia, due process should count more than blind team support Trump will give State of Union to sea of opponents MORE (D-Mass.), I believe there are four distinct areas in which Risch could make a difference as chair.

First, Risch could play an essential role reassuring jittery allies. Repeated blasts by Trump that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners are not paying their fair share of security costs or his characterization of the European Union as a “foe” of the United States has opened up a worrisome chasm.

Republican stalwarts like former Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGabbard hits back at Meghan McCain after fight over Assad Mellman: Where are good faith and integrity? GOP senator says Republicans didn't control Senate when they held majority MORE (R-Ariz.) or even Corker are no longer around to provide needed reassurances. This vital responsibility is something Risch could easily undertake.

Risch’s conservative bona fides would provide enhanced credibility if he were to privately and publicly confirm to anxious partners that the U.S. remains steadfastly committed to its treaty partners.

Of course, this entails getting on a plane and traveling. Risch has indicated that he plans to stay put in Washington: “I get a good share of what I need to get done here in my office.” 

Second, Risch can be an important voice on human rights and democracy concerns. Trump has consistently undermined core human rights and democracy principles in his tenure.

It has been left to congressional leaders to chastise human rights abusers and sanction repressive regimes (such as the Senate resolution in December calling for the Trump administration to stop all military assistance to Saudi Arabia related to the war in Yemen).

If Risch decides to add his voice to the mix, e.g., regularly holding hearings on human rights and democracy issues or pushing the Trump administration to hold a firmer line against autocratic states like Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, this would make a meaningful difference in shoring up the “values” side of U.S. foreign policy. 

Third, while Risch does not intend to take an adversarial approach to the Trump administration, this does not mean he must abdicate the committee’s accountability and oversight functions altogether.

Congress has a constitutional obligation to ensure the executive is operating effectively, implementing appropriate policies and following the rule of law. Congress also has an obligation to shape public opinion on issues of critical importance through public hearings, testimonials, speeches and legislation.

At a minimum, this means being vigilant about ensuring Trump’s team is not drawing up policies that directly harm U.S. interests. Trump’s mixed signals about U.S. withdrawal from Syria is a good case in point.

At this juncture, it is unclear what exactly is the U.S. policy position. Immediate departure? Partial withdrawal over several months? Withdrawal only after the “complete defeat” of ISIS? On such issues, Risch should push the administration to provide strategic clarity (and hopefully enable more prudent policymaking to emerge).

Fourth, Risch can spotlight over-the-horizon challenges that the Trump administration is neglecting to address. While Trump stumbles from crisis to crisis without a coherent approach, U.S. adversaries aren’t standing around.

China is aggressively investing in cutting-edge technologies, from artificial intelligence to quantum computing, that will allow it to catch up to the U.S. potentially within a decade. Russia’s emphasis on asymmetric warfare and influence operations will further corrode liberal norms and principles worldwide.

The committee is in a prime position to highlight looming threats and underscore areas that require increased policy attention.

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The chairperson of the senate foreign relations occupies a unique place in government. While he or she lacks the budgetary authority or legislative power of other chairs, the chairperson has immense persuasive authority to shape public opinion and influence critical policy issues.

Prior committee chairmen, including Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), for whom my university position is endowed, intuitively grasped how to wield the levers of influence to meet their objectives. 

Frank Church observed, “A viable foreign policy has to have broad public support, which can come, over the long term, only as the result of informed public debate. One of the important functions of Congress is not only to reflect public opinion, but to take the lead, along with the president and other opinion-molders, in forming it.”

While Risch has explicitly said that he “will not be a Frank Church,” that does not mean he can’t give the committee a public stake in holding Trump’s foreign policy to account when it is wrong, and pushing the president to make better, more temperate decisions when it is needed. 

Steven Feldstein is associate professor and Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University,and nonresident fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program. He served as a deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor at the U.S. Department of State (2014-17). Follow him on Twitter @SteveJFeldstein.