Pulling U.S. troops out of Syria as President Donald Trump said this week he is inclined to do could undermine the gains made against ISIS terrorists, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Friday.
"Having been to Syria and around the situation there, I think it would be a major disaster for us to leave Syria right now," U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told the Cleveland/Bradley County Chamber of Commerce. "The people we have there are providing intelligence and providing assistance; they are not fighting."
Most of the ISIS fighting in Syria has been done by the Kurds, who lost more than 4,000 lives, compared with only a single U.S. soldier fatality in Syria.
But after "wasting" $7 trillion on military operations in the Middle East over the past 17 years and defeating most of the ISIS military, Trump said this week it's time for the U.S. to withdraw its military and support operations from Syria.
"I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation," Trump said during a press conference with leaders of the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on Tuesday. "We were successful against ISIS but sometimes it's time to come back home — and we're thinking about that very seriously."
Trump has yet to set any timetable for withdrawal of the remaining 2,000 or so U.S. soldiers still in Syria. Trump's desire for a rapid withdrawal has been opposed by officials in the Pentagon and State Department.
Corker, who was initially considered by Trump as a potential Secretary of State, said it is uncertain what the impact will be on White House foreign policy with the replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by CIA Director Mike Pompeo and the replacement of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster by former UN Ambassador John Bolton. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing on Thursday for Pompeo.
"I was a great fan of Rex Tillerson — I might have been his only friend in Washington," Corker quipped. "I really think he gave sound advice."
Wrapping up a week of public listening sessions across Tennessee on Friday, Corker also criticized the Trump administration for threatening to slap tariffs on hundreds of goods around the globe, threatening a trade war that he said would hurt American consumers and workers.
Corker said China "is ripping off American intellectual property" through both cyber attacks and local requirements to use Chinese businesses that then steal U.S. business technologies.
"We do need to counter the theft of our intellectual property, but I think there is a better way than entering into a trade war in order to do so," he said. "It's really hard to win a trade war, despite the word coming out of the White House."
But Corker cautioned those worried about Trump's rhetoric to look at White House actions more than some of the president's tweets or speeches. Often the ultimate policy moves are less radical than the rhetoric or initial threats of action, Corker said.
Corker lamented that Congress hasn't been able to reach a comprehensive immigration reform plan to better limit illegal immigration while protecting so-called dreamers, or the children of those brought illegally to America.
Corker said Trump's decision this week to use more National Guard troops for border enforcement "is really more of a show thing and it won't deal much with our long-term issues." An estimated 40 percent of the illegal immigrants in the United States come to the country with valid passports and overstay their VISAs.
"There are places where a physical structure needs to be improved, but most of what needs to happen is more on the surveillance side and certainly dealing with the VISA overstays," Corker said.
Corker is not seeking re- election and insists he has tried to be an independent, not partisan, voice in Washington.
The former Chattanooga mayor and real estate developer briefly considered seeking a third term earlier this year after an early poll also showed Democrat Phil Bredesen leading the field. Another poll this week by Middle Tennessee State University showed Bredesen up by 10 percentage points over his likely GOP rival, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn.
Corker said the election year is still early and poll results will likely change. He said Friday that his decision to leave the U.S. Senate "was a difficult decision."
"But it was the right decision," he said, noting that he had always said he planned to serve two six-year terms in the U.S. Senate similar to his predecessor, Sen. Bill Frist, who stepped down as Senate Majority Leader after 12 years in the Senate.
For the next nine months, Corker said he will concentrate on his Senate job and hopes his successor elected in November will continue Tennessee's reputation for leadership in the upper chamber of the Senate.
"There's been something in the water here where some how or another in our state, we've had senators of import," he said.
In the past three decades, Tennessee has elected to U.S. Senate Democrats Al Gore Jr., who nearly was elected president, and Jim Sasser, who was chairman of the Senate budget committee, and Republicans Howard Baker and Frist, who both served as Senate Majority leaders, and Corker and Lamar Alexander, who are chairs, respectively, of the Foreign Relations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees.
"I hope that the next senator of our state, whoever that is, aspires to be a great statesman," Corker said. "We've had senators in our state, generally speaking, since Howard Baker, who have been of national prominence and have reached across the aisle and been statesmen to solve problems. I just hope whoever our next senator is aspires to be that."
Corker said he doesn't know yet what his own future will be after his term ends in January. But he said he enjoys working on complex problems and, after earning millions of dollars in the real estate development business earlier in his career, he would like to try to continue to do some public service tasks.
"I've been working since I was 13 years old and I love public service," Corker said. "I don't have any financial needs at this point, but I really don't know yet. If there was a way to provide public service in a different way that was realistic, certainly I would look at that.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.