Sen. Mark Kirk is only a freshman, but he’s already emerging as an important foreign policy voice in the Senate with the nation now in a third war and turmoil spreading throughout the Middle East.
The hawkish and wonky moderate Republican from President Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois says he’s competing to be on the “second-string” of GOP experts on foreign policy after veterans such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), with whom he shares many positions and views.
But with Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) retiring, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) facing a tough primary and McCain in his 70s, Kirk appears poised for an even larger role in the not-too-distant future.
The 10-year House veteran hasn’t taken the usual freshman approach of laying low for a year or so.
“That may be a more successful strategy, but in general, the feeling is because you are representing a huge state, you are propelled by the folks back home,” Kirk said. And, he noted, “Chicago does not produce shrinking violets.”
Kirk, 51, didn’t waste time ruffling feathers. Shortly after being sworn in last year, he went to the floor and ripped START to the consternation of some of his elders.
“They were trying to interrupt me every two minutes,” he joked in an interview last week. But Kirk said he felt compelled to speak out on an issue he had spent a great deal of time on and was convinced would hurt national security.
Lately he’s been out front on a host of hot-button issues, particularly in the Middle East — calling early for military intervention in Libya, joining with Kyl in a stern rebuke of Syria’s violence against protesters and working across the aisle with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on legislation to tighten sanctions against Iran.
“He’s definitely one of the voices in our conference that people listen to on such matters and his background is very helpful,” Graham said.
Kirk also doesn’t fit in a partisan box.
“There are some of our colleagues who pretty well got their mind made up on a lot of issues — Mark is a guy that will listen to what you have to say. ... That really raises your status in the Senate. If your colleagues see you as open-minded, in a pretty divided body that makes you effective. You can hit above your weight.”
Will This Play in Peoria?
There aren’t too many first-year Senators who are followed around by a swarm of foreign policy reporters. But Kirk, in part because of his accessibility but also because of his obvious command of the issues, regularly attracts a crowd.
Kirk is still active as a reserve naval intelligence officer, and his résumé includes stints at the State Department, the World Bank and as a Congressional staffer.
He can rattle off the names of Iranian dissidents with ease and talks with passion about fairly obscure issues such as the persecuted Baha’i minority in Iran. He’s trying to get the Obama administration to highlight the names of those dissidents in much the same way presidents talked about dissidents in the old Soviet Union, as a way of delegitimizing the Iranian regime.
He’s also working with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to create a bipartisan U.S.-China working group in the Senate as he had in the House, where he founded and co-chaired a group that has grown to 70 members.
In his spare time, he’s planning a Congressional delegation targeting piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Kirk said that while he and his constituents are also focused on the economy and the deficit, war trumps everything. His regular stints of Naval Reserve active duty give him “a very granular view of the big wars and more importantly the little ones,” he said.
“There’s an undeclared war going on in Somalia. There’s an undeclared war going on in Yemen,” he said. He added, “once you serve in the military” and have seen the “death of Americans in battle in poorly designed missions, your emotional involvement becomes very high.”
Kirk said Americans in the heartland bring up Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt and other foreign policy hot spots regularly at town halls.
He said he has often heard the phrase, “Will this play in Peoria?”
“Well I represent Peoria,” he said. “Foreign policy is not absent, and it has the potential to dominate the discussion. It really is on the minds of people in the heartland.”
For now, Kirk said he’s working to push his ideas — such as tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime or more robust rules of engagement for the war in Libya — regardless of whether he gets credit for them.
“In the House I spent five years to get the bill through that was basically intended to collapse Iran’s supply of foreign gasoline,” he said. He worked with a succession of Democratic co-sponsors, and the bill eventually had Democratic Rep. Howard Berman’s (Calif.) name on it, but Kirk said that was fine.
“My philosophy was just get it done, and we did. ... If you’re OK with it, you are going to be increasingly effective,” he said of sharing the credit. But he acknowledged, “four years from now I’m going to be more about getting the credit” as he gears up for re-election.
Kirk has also tried regularly to team up with Democrats — like Gillibrand on Iran or the senior Senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, on many home-state issues and on nuclear power.
“My experience as a Congressional staffer is bipartisan is the way to be effective,” he said. Kirk’s first job on the Hill was as a staffer for his predecessor, then-Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), where he moved up to become chief of staff three years after being hired. He later served as counsel to the House International Relations Committee.
Kirk and Durbin had a meeting to bury the hatchet after Kirk’s victory last fall, and the two say they’ve been pleasantly surprised working with each other.
Durbin doesn’t begrudge Kirk’s early outspokenness.
“First, he was in the early Senate class, and served in the House before that. Many of us who made that transition didn’t feel the obligation to be silent and unheard for a year or whatever the old standard was,” Durbin said.
“He brings to it the expertise of his service in the House and his service in the military and so is well-qualified to speak on those issues.”