On a recent week in Washington, D.C., Idaho's freshman Sen. Jim Risch heard from a State Department official on foreign aid to Pakistan, from playwright Eve Ensler--of Vagina Monologues fame--on the widespread use of rape in the Congo, and from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Risch, whose prior foreign experience amounts to European vacations with his wife and political partner, Vicki, and trade missions as lieutenant governor, now sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Select Intelligence Committee.
It's a prestigious pair of assignments. Idaho has not had a voice in foreign affairs since Frank Church chaired the committee in 1979, his last year in the Senate.
Church's widow, Bethine Church, told BW that she doesn't think Risch has a deep grasp of foreign policy, but that she'll give him time to figure it out.
"I don't think you can really tell about how someone is going to turn out on a committee until you actually watch him do it," Bethine Church said.
Risch appears to be doing his homework. He toured Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan in April, making his first major foreign policy speech to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce upon his return. And senior members of the Foreign Relations Committee praised his performance.
"I'm pleased that he's been a thoughtful and hard-working, present member of the committee," Foreign Relations Chairman Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry told BW in a brief interview.
Indeed, aside from Kerry, Risch was the only senator to remain at the Blair hearing to the end, nailing a cameo handshake on C-Span. He asked Blair, an envoy to the region on behalf of the Madrid Quartet, how to keep the focus on the Palestinian question when the Israelis are more focused on threats from Iran and how to deal with the split Palestinian leadership between the West Bank and Gaza.
"One gets a sense that the gap between the leadership in the West Bank vs. the leadership, if you would call it such, in Gaza grows instead of comes closer together. How do you deal with that?" Risch asked Blair,
"That's an absolutely right question to ask," Blair responded.
Several other senators followed up on Risch's questions.
Risch is still moving into his spacious Senate office. The most prominent item on display is a replica of the door to his last office, that of the interim governor of Idaho that sits in his D.C. lobby.
Risch's bookshelves are mostly empty and the most visible item on his desk the day BW visited was a 2-inch stack of press clippings in which he was quoted interrogating a State Department official on the purpose of more foreign aid to Pakistan.
Risch was mentioned in the Washington Post, USA Today, Bloomberg and Radio Free Europe after that hearing.
Sitting in his office, Risch told BW that even though Washington is hyper-partisan, foreign relations is not always that way. He often agrees with Kerry, supported Hillary Clinton's nomination as secretary of state, and said all of the State Department appointments have been above politics.
"The place where you get the least partisanship is the Foreign Relations Committee because the interest of the Unites States is the interest of the United States," Risch said.
While others on Capitol Hill agreed that there is less partisanship in foreign relations, the committee has had partisan staffers since at least Jesse Helms' time as chairman in the 1990s, and the debate over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken on a partisan sheen. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a conservative Republican from Kentucky, led Risch's recent trip abroad.
The questioning of foreign aid--one of the few items in foreign diplomacy that Congress can control--has some precedent in Idaho history. Idaho Sen. William Borah, a Republican with an independent streak, chaired Foreign Relations from 1924 to 1933, during which time he tried to limit the United States' role in foreign matters. Sen. Church, a Democrat, also attempted to rein in foreign aid.
"Congress is often skeptical of foreign aid and that's a bipartisan trait," said Michael O'Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and expert on foreign relations.
Neither O'Hanlon nor several other foreign policy watchers BW contacted had seen Risch in action long enough to say where his foreign policy positions may lead.
While Borah's time saw wide ranging debate on America's role on the world stage (Borah sought to limit it), nations are now linked in too many ways not to think globally. Risch said that there is no more isolationism in this day and age.
"Bill Borah never saw an Internet connection," he said.
Yet Risch is no budding internationalist either.
"I think of things in American terms," Risch told the chamber crowd in April.
In visiting the Middle East and Afghanistan, Risch found it difficult to apply concepts like the melting pot and the Constitution.
"A lot of those countries, they've got Islamic right in the name of the country," he said.
Risch was enchanted with aging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak--he's like your grandfather, Risch said--and clearly wooed by the Israelis.
Bethine Church said that foreign visits and meetings with foreign dignitaries in Washington are essential for success on the committee. She said Sen. Church read voraciously--even Mein Kampf--and hired experienced foreign policy advisors.
Risch has not hired a foreign affairs staff yet. Ryan White, who ran Risch's Senate campaign, attends the committee hearings with him and Risch's office has a knowledgeable CIA intern.
Risch said he signed onto Foreign Relations because he wants Idaho to have a voice in international affairs. Richard Slaughter, an international economic and public policy consultant and director of the Boise Committee on Foreign Relations, was surprised at Risch's interest.
Slaughter suggested that access to export markets may be one of Risch's motivations for taking on foreign policy.
"He becomes a bit of an internationalist, not in the Church sense, but in a sense of protecting the world institutions that make prosperity possible in Idaho," Slaughter said.
Foreign affairs gave both Borah and Church a national spotlight without harming their standing in Idaho. Risch, who just turned 66, getting a later start on his Senate career, said his priorities are making all his votes and meeting with Idahoans and responding to their calls and e-mails.
"Having said that, I'm also a United States senator, and as a result of that, I have an obligation when it comes to issues that affect the Unites States. Obviously, if there's a collision, Idaho's going to get my vote, clearly," Risch said.
"One of the challenges I guess I have is to convince people in Idaho that what happens around the world affects us in Idaho ... Our standing in the world affects jobs here, it affects our economy here, it affects energy here, it affects all those things."