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Idaho senator says window closed for good options in Syria

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Senate Foreign Relations member Jim Risch, R-Idaho, worries that the president has "gotten us to the point where America is viewed differently."
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)(C) walks with newly elected Senators Jim Risch (R-ID)(L) and Mike Johanns (R-NE) on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 17, 2008.  REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES) - RTXAP29

Whether it's negotiations with Iran, hand-wringing over Syria or deteriorating relations with longtime allies, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, is using his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to try to limit the damage he thinks President Barack Obama has done to America's standing across the Middle East.

The first-term senator, speaking to Al-Monitor at his Washington Senate office, has repeatedly defied the administration, notably with his vote to deny military action against Syria or his push to slap new sanctions on Iran despite ongoing nuclear talks.

Risch insists he's not motivated by ideology or partisanship, but rather by a deep-seated sense that Obama isn't up to the challenge.

"Starting from day one," Risch said in an interview in his office, Obama has gotten foreign policy wrong.

"This appeasement tour that he started on when he took office, that does not sell in the rest of the world," he said. "It's his personality, I understand that, but that's not conducive to a solid foreign policy that gives you standing and gives you respect in the world."

The result, according to Risch: America's allies have lost faith, while foes have been emboldened.

"I think that's affected a lot of things," Risch said. "The best example I can give is he had a 90-minute conversation with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin telling him not to go into the Crimea. Can you imagine a 90-second conversation between Ronald Reagan and Putin? He would never have gone into the Crimea."

Obama, Risch says, "is just viewed differently than Ronald Reagan was viewed. And he's gotten us to the point where America is viewed differently."

A former prosecutor and governor, the 70-year-old Risch says he joined the Foreign Relations and Intelligence panels to give Idaho a seat on world-shaping committees the state hasn't had a presence on since Sen. Frank Church's retirement more than three decades ago. The shallow bench on Foreign Relations has helped propel him to the front of the line, and Risch is now the No. 2 Republican on the committee and the ranking member on its Middle East subcommittee.

Foreign policy has traditionally been a largely bipartisan affair, and chairmen and ranking members in both chambers — Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. — have worked closely together to preserve that tradition. Risch, however, says he's "still in a position where I can vote my own conscience."

That was made apparent last September, when Risch broke with fellow Republican committee members Corker, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and voted against Obama's request for military strikes against Bashar al-Assad's forces in retaliation for their alleged used of chemical weapons.

The Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 to support military action.

"People that are really good at billiards really don't care about the first shot; they're always thinking about the second shot," Risch said.

The Obama administration, he said, "had no plans for what would happen on day two. And that's what really, really concerned me: I didn't know where they were headed, and they couldn't explain to me where they were headed; I didn't know what success looked like, and they couldn't explain it to me what success looked like."

Risch still hasn't seen any evidence that Obama has come up with any good options in Syria.

"I think the window of opportunity closed a long, long time ago," he said. "At this point, everybody's aware that there are so many different factions doing so many different things that it's almost impossible to make a judgment as to what you could do to make things better."

"I'm not interested in doing something just to be doing something, which there are a lot of people here who think, 'well, we have to do something,'" he said. "Well, I don't fall in that camp. Before I do something, I want to know how it's going to make things better. And I haven't seen any ideas that get me to that point."

That lack of trust in the administration also helps explain his push for a vote on Iran sanctions.

"I have been critical of that from the beginning," he said. "I am astonished — absolutely astonished — that somebody would sit down at the table with the people they are dealing with and make an arrangement whereby they would give them something in exchange for a promise to behave themselves in the future. That is the height of naivete as far as I'm concerned."

He called Iran's continued enrichment as talks go on a "despicable act" and said passing new sanctions would make it clear to the Iranians that the United States is serious about denying them a nuclear weapon. President Obama argues passing new sanctions now could derail talks.

"My judgment is, this is exactly the time we should be pushing additional sanctions," Risch said. "As far as I'm concerned, we could vote on it tomorrow."

He predicted that Congress, in the end, will get to "sign off" on a final deal since lawmakers will have to vote to lift remaining sanctions.

"If I were the administration, I would want Congress signing off on this deal," Risch said. "Because if it goes south, at least they can say, 'we didn't do this by ourselves, we had help from Congress.' I would hope they would come to us."

The senator has a personal reason for getting involved: Saeed Abedini, the imprisoned US-Iranian pastor, is his constituent. The Senate passed a Risch resolution last year urging Iran to release Abedini and all other individuals imprisoned for their religious beliefs.

"I would have held my hand out and said, 'I'm going to take my hand off of [the $500 million in sanctions relief] when the three Americans walk out of your prisons and get out of your country,'" Risch said. "And the Iranians, if they were dealing in good faith, they would have cut those people loose without a demand."

Risch has been equally skeptical of the prospects for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

"I've been watching this for decades. And nothing changes — almost nothing of any significance has changed as far as the peace process is concerned," he said. "It's hard to get excited or optimistic about anything given the long, long history that's gone nowhere on this issue."

He doesn't fault Secretary of State John Kerry for trying, however.

"If they do stuff in Asia, then they get accused of taking their eye off the Middle East. You've got to walk and chew gum at the same time, but having said that, usually the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and that's why the attention is being paid to where the attention is being paid."

Now, he said, it's time to repair frayed ties with longtime allies — even ones who seemed unpalatable after the Arab Spring.

Risch, for example, hasn't joined Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others calling for a suspension of $1.5 billion in mostly military aid to Egypt after scores of people were sentenced to death last month.

"I have not been one who's calling for an end to the aid," he told Al-Monitor.

"There's an aspect to that that gets discussed very little, and that is the relationship between the Egyptian military and the Israeli military and what happens on the border in the Sinai," he said. "It's one of the great success stories in the Middle East that no one ever talks about — for 35 years there's been peace there, because the two militaries have been able to work that out."

"The military has kept stability there for a long, long time. When I talk about stability, I mean stability that affects the international community and their neighbors," he said. "Most people who deal with these things know that there's actually two governments in Egypt — there is a civilian government and a military government, and they are two very different institutions. And that also affects the judgment that I have."

He also voted this week against declassifying the Senate intelligence report on the CIA's interrogation program, which critics say amounted to torture, in part to avoid hurting US allies.

"The Senate Intelligence Committee today voted to send a one-sided, partisan report to the CIA and White House for declassification despite warnings from the State Department and our allies indicating that declassification of this report could endanger the lives of American diplomats and citizens overseas and jeopardize US relations with other countries," Risch said in a joint statement with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Rather, he thinks the United States should repair its fraying ties with traditional allies in an unstable neighborhood — even those that don't share America's human values when it comes to rights or democracy.

"Who would have thought we'd be arguing with the Saudis? It boggles the mind," Risch told Al-Monitor. "We've had a relationship that we've worked on for decades there. And now all of a sudden it is where it is? It's discouraging, to say the least."

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