With Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee leaving the Senate after next year, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch appears to be a sure bet for taking over as chairman of prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2019 – assuming that Republicans retain their slim majority in that chamber.
Those prospects are not so lofty, given the GOP’s inability to govern with control of the White House and Congress. Democrats easily could grab back control of the Senate after next year’s mid-term elections, perhaps with the blessing of President Donald Trump.
But it’s exciting to think about the prospects of an Idaho senator rising to the top of a committee that historically has produced some of the sharpest people ever to serve in the Senate. I knew one of them, Sen. Richard Lugar, during my reporting days in Indiana, and he probably was the most intelligent person I’ve known. Risch, who I have seen in action for more than 30 years, is up there on the IQ scale and has a firm grasp on foreign policy. Risch is a frequent guest of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s news program and has shown that he knows what he’s talking about.
But for the moment, Risch is not thinking about committee coronations in 2019. “I need to focus on what I’m doing right now,” he says. And part of his job is trying to make sense of what’s happening in North Korea and a dictator who is setting new standards for insanity.
“As with Saddam Hussein, we have a dictator who may or may not be believing his own baloney,” Risch told me. “They become very emboldened and are willing to pick a fight they cannot possibly win or come close to winning.”
Risch doesn’t go as far as describing Kim Jong Un as crazy, although “he may have some personality disorders.” Picking a fight with the United States, and testing Trump’s will are not the actions of a rational person.
So … maybe the guy is crazy.
“The situation is very dangerous and there is a real risk that it isn’t going to end well. A lot of what happens is in line with what Kim Jong Un believes he can do as far as how far he can push Donald Trump. If our national security is threatened, (Trump) will not hesitate to act,” Risch said.
“Our committee meets regularly with the diplomatic side, White House side, and we also have our own counsel,” Risch said. “But at the end of the day, if Kim Jong Un makes the wrong move, one person is going to have to make a quick decision.”
As for the threat from North Korea, Risch said, “this guy has some stuff and he can do some damage. But his abilities, compared to the United States, are de minimis, really.”
Risch says diplomatic channels must stay open, considering what’s at stake, and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has proven himself to be the “right man for the job.”
Trump has created some diplomatic barriers, suggesting in his tweets that Tillerson is wasting his time pursuing diplomacy. Mocking Kim as “Rocket Man,” or more recently, “Little Rocket Man,” creates more tension. Terms such as “Lying Ted,” “Little Marco,” and “Crooked Hillary” worked in his campaign for the presidency, but name-calling doesn’t help solve world conflicts.
“I’ll let you guys comment about that,” Risch said. “It’s not something I would do, but he (Trump) has a certain vocabulary he uses and it would be counter-productive for me to dissuade him from that.”
The voice of reason in this this situation may be China — a longtime ally and trading partner of North Korea. Risch senses that the Chinese recognize that something needs to be done about North Korea. “They don’t want all this on their doorstep.”
If the crisis isn’t resolved sometime in the next 14 months, it will be on Risch’s doorstep if he becomes chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. A chairmanship certainly would give Risch a higher profile in Washington and an opportunity to be a lead policy figure on this North Korean mess.
Be careful what you wish for, senator.