Diplomatic Pouch / March 19, 2015
By Larry Luxner
Sen. Tom Cotton, the 37-year-old defense hawk whom nobody had heard of until a few weeks ago, has suddenly made himself a household name on Capitol Hill.
That follows Cotton’s authorship of the now-notorious March 9 open letter to Iran’s leadership, warning the Ayatollah Khamenei that any nuclear agreement he may sign with the White House and not approved by Congress won’t last past January 2017, when President Obama leaves office.
“The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen,” warned the letter, co-signed by 46 of Cotton’s fellow Republicans in the Senate.
Not surprisingly, the GOP appeal to Tehran infuriated the White House and instantly propelled the freshman senator from Arkansas to rock-star status among fellow hawks who despise the 44th president for what they say is his willingness to negotiate with America’s worst enemies.
On Wednesday, Cotton elaborated on his worldview for an admiring, standing-room only crowd at Washington’s conservative Hudson Institute. The 37-year-old lawmaker was introduced by the nonprofit organization’s president, Ken Weinstein.
“Many think tanks here in Washington give platforms for elected officials to make pronouncements, but this series aims to be something truly unique: a dialogue for real conversation, not staged ones, such as is possible in Washington,” said Weinstein. “Our intent is to feature leading Republicans, Democrats and foreign officials sharing their perspectives, to try to elevate the debate on America’s strategic challenges.”
With that, Hudson distinguished scholar Walter Russell Mead asked the freshman senator what the nation’s foreign policy goals should be for the short term.
“The immediate goal of U.S. foreign policy is to stop the worldwide descent into disorder and chaos that will threaten the lives of Americans,” Cotton quickly responded. “Our long-term goal has to be maintenance of global order in a way that reassures our allies and deters our adversaries.”
The current president, he said, has a tendency to give America’s enemies a hand and help them up off the mat, “which is what I learned to do playing basketball in Dardanelle, Arkansas. But in the army and in combat, I learned that when your opponent is on his knees, you drive him into the mat and choke him out.”
Tough talk indeed from a man who served as a platoon leader with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division and was deployed to Baghdad in 2006 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He also served in Afghanistan and later was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for bravery.
Cotton said Congress should “substantially increase” defense spending so that the U.S. military can “protect our interests, kill or capture terrorists and make sure Russia doesn’t continue its revisionist policies in Ukraine. We have to use military force to back up our diplomacy.”
Asked how much is enough, Cotton said a defense budget of $611 billion would be “the absolute minimum.”
“That is very affordable. Look at where we were in 1981, when both President Reagan and congressional Democrats viewed our defense budget as dangerously low — and that was 5 percent of the total. Now we’re at 3 percent,” he said. “It’s not a question of affordability, it’s a question of our political leaders prioritizing. Ultimately not increasing the budget will cost more, because we’ll have to play catch-up.”
In fact, he continued, “it’s gotten a lot worse in the last six years under President Obama. We can’t think that if we only go home and let the world take care of itself, we’re going to have an era of peace. The first thing we have to do is make sure we have the strongest military in the world, so that no one would ever think of challenging us.”
In recent months, said Cotton, the news cycle has been dominated by “Putin invading Ukraine, ISIS cutting off the heads of American citizens, tens of thousands of immigrants crossing our southern border, and an Ebola outbreak in West Africa.”
Cotton’s appearance at the Hudson Institute came the same day Islamist terrorists attacked a Tunisian museum, killing 19 European tourists. And it followed by one day the re-election victory of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who like Cotton is an outspoken opponent of the Iranian nuclear program.
Last month, Cotton returned to Arkansas for a week-long vacation and found that “no matter where I went, by far the most common question people had was about national security. In fact, that outnumbered Obamacare, immigration and all other issues.”
As for the Middle East, he said, “President Obama drew a red line in Syria and then erased it. Iran with a nuclear weapon is a threat to all of us, but if you’re a small state like Israel or the United Arab Emirates, it’s much more of a threat.”
Meade asked Cotton how he’d restructure Washington’s Mideast policies if the president were to come to him and ask for advice.
“Well, I’d tell him that we have to strengthen our traditional against Iran and confront Iran’s drive for regional hegemony,” replied the senator. “And although I respect Netanyahu tremendously as a statesman, our alliance is not with a single statesman but with the country of Israel, and Israel is the bedrock of our alliances in the Middle East.”
Cotton added that Obama has inadvertently driven Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia closer to one another than the four countries have ever been, because all four of them fear a nuclear-armed Iran.
“This nuclear umbrella will allow Iran to become even more aggressive,” he warned. “It will encourage Sunni Arab states to get nuclear weapons, and a lot of those states are not necessary the most stable — so Islamic insurgents will realize they only have to topple the right governments to get their hands on nuclear weapons.”
Cotton added: “As long as the ayatollahs are in charge of Iran, certainly we can’t make any kind of rapprochement with them. Unfortunately, the president has been doing this from the very beginning.”