About a month ago, a freshman U.S. senator posted these words to his official website:
“We will consider any agreement regarding you nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”
In an instant, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., catapulted himself into the upper echelons of the conversation on foreign policy, insisting that he, a 37-year-old lawmaker with exactly 796 days of experience in the federal government, should be heard alongside the eminent diplomats of the nation. His letter, addressed to Iran’s leaders and signed by 46 of his GOP Senate colleagues, thrust him into the debate over halting Iran’s nuclear capabilities in a way that was – depending on whom you ask – bold and ambitious, brash and immature, or downright treasonous and illegal.
And the backlash was immediate.
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry led a chorus of Democrats denouncing Cotton and his colleagues, accusing them of naiveté and foolhardiness. Cotton fielded criticism from within his own party, too, including from some of the GOP senators who signed the letter.
It “probably would have been better just to have it be an open letter addressed to no one,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., suggested to The Associated Press. It “could have been addressed to other folks and gotten the message out,” added Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
If nothing else, says William Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, Cotton violated the unwritten rule that brand-new senators, like in the old adage about children, should be seen and not heard. But his method, while seen as madness to some, also fell in line with the new breed of Republican rock star.
“Mr. Cotton is marching down the road that Ted Cruz and others have blazed,” says Galston, now chairman of the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution. “I think it’s a bad path, but this is what happens when someone without any institutional experience acts in very partisan times in a way that people who are older and more experienced – and I would have thought wiser – would have talked him out of.”
Cotton ran for the House in 2012 and for the Senate two years later on the back of his military bona fides, having served in the Army on active duty from 2005-2009 and in the Reserve from 2010-2013. His biography and unimpeachable commitment to the core values of small-government conservatism have had pundits recently calling him a “ superstar” and the “ perfect Republican.” But he seemed an ideal conservative standard-bearer made to run for national office, even before he trounced incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor by 17 points in the 2014 election.
Now, with support coming from the various and often opposing corners of the party – including the business community, evangelicals, tea partiers and establishment Republicans – Cotton has been mentioned as a future presidential candidate, a potential vice presidential pick for 2016 or even a dark horse contender for the GOP nomination next year. Late last month, the Arkansas legislature passed a bill changing state law to allow candidates to run for re-election while pursuing another office, a measure so blatantly aimed at allowing Cotton to stump for his Senate seat while also campaigning for president in 2020 that it became known as the “Tom Cotton bill.”
Cotton’s sudden rise in Arkansas capped a Republican takeover in a Southern state that hasn’t shied away from electing Democrats. Since Obama entered the White House, however, Republicans have won 13 of 14 House and Senate elections, including Sen. John Boozman’s crushing defeat of two-term Democrat Blanche Lincoln in 2010. The GOP successfully flipped both Senate seats and the three of the state’s four House seats it did not already control.
“It’s hard to describe how massively our politics have been altered by Barack Obama,” says Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and the director of the Arkansas Poll.
What’s less obvious is how permanent the shift is, and whether it will outlast Obama. For his part, Cotton has bucked the priorities most of the state’s politicians typically have hewed closely to, including voting as a congressman against the farm bill, which most strongly benefits poor and rural states like Arkansas.
“On the one hand, [Cotton’s] star is rising in national Republican circles, but it’s a risky electoral strategy if he intends to stay in Arkansas,” Parry says. “He’s taken positions that are deeply unpopular here. Voting against the farm bill didn’t cost him anything in , but in another year? It might.”
The Iran letter, in both substance and the controversy it engendered, was right in line with pre-Senate Cotton: The course of his career has been hallmarked by the same fervor and self-confidence seen in the missive, even when he’s espoused unpopular ideas or those others wouldn’t admit to backing. His record as a legislator shows him willing to slash domestic spending – he’s even voted against disaster relief bills – while supporting the most muscular military and intelligence apparatus possible.
Cotton’s senior thesis, produced while an undergraduate at Harvard University, is a treatise on the Federalist Papers and the particular ambition and intellectual superiority that drives those who run for political office.
“Ambition characterizes and distinguishes national officeholders from other kinds of human beings,” Cotton wrote. “Inflammatory passion and selfish interest characterizes most men, whereas ambition characterizes men who pursue and hold national office. Such men rise from the people through a process of self-selection since politics is a dirty business that discourages all but the most ambitious.”
In columns in the Harvard Crimson, he tackled what he saw as “sacred cows” like affirmative action, freely admitting he did so while knowing it would not earn him popularity.
“My first end was not to persuade but rather to offend your sensibilities. For with offended sensibilities comes indignation and with indignation a desire to refute,” he wrote in a May 1998 column. “It was my intent to challenge with my writings; and by challenging, I meant to improve, to jolt slumbering minds into wakefulness.”
While serving as an Army lieutenant in Iraq in 2006, Cotton penned an unpublished letter to The New York Times, copied to the conservative Power Line blog, excoriating the paper for an article containing details on a Bush administration program that monitored terrorists’ finances.
“You may think you have done a public service, but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here,” he wrote, suggesting several Times staffers should be prosecuted for violation of espionage laws. “Next time I hear that familiar explosion – or next time I feel it – I will wonder whether we could have stopped that bomb had you not instructed terrorists how to evade our financial surveillance.”
That letter may have been Cotton’s first step to launching a bid for higher office, even back in darker days for the Arkansas GOP.
“Republicans could not catch a break in Arkansas politics, except [former Gov.] Mike Huckabee,” Parry says. But “I had students talking about Tom Cotton” after his letter to the Times.
After sending the letter, Cotton reportedly feared for his military career, but was told to keep his superiors in the loop next time and received praise from fellow soldiers. And with his positions on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees – along with his chairmanship of Armed Services’ Airland subcommittee – there’s speculation he could model his career on that of another veteran who rose through his party’s ranks: Sen. John McCain.
“I’m glad to see him heavily engaged,” the Arizona Republican, one of the signatories on Cotton’s letter, says of his colleague’s carving out a role for himself as an outspoken voice on foreign policy. “He’s got a good background on the military and national security, and I’m very happy to see it.”
During his first term in Congress, Cotton found himself facing another wall of criticism for sponsoring legislation that would have automatically – without any investigation – punished the family members of people who violate U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Critics said the provision, offered as an amendment to the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, was a direct violation of the Constitution’s due process clause, and noted the founding document’s explicit ban on punishing the relatives of those convicted of treason based on the “corruption of blood.”
But Cotton defended the amendment, saying Iranian citizens are not covered under the Constitution. And the measure – along with a previous suggestion in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference that Obama should have tortured Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law – provided yet another window into his political philosophy: a hawk’s-eye view of American exceptionalism honed by his own boots on the ground.
For the most part, Americans agree with Cotton on one point from the March 9 missive – that Congress should have its say on the Iran nuclear deal, which they apparently will after a compromise measure giving lawmakers a vote on the final accord cleared a key Senate committee this week. According to a Pew Research Center poll released March 30, 62 percent of those surveyed said Congress should have final approval authority over any agreement between Iran and the so-called P5+1 nations negotiating the former’s nuclear policy. (Another poll found 42 percent of Americans thought sending the letter was inappropriate, compared with 28 percent who thought it was OK and 31 percent who weren’t sure.)
But by a nearly 2-1 margin, Americans support in principle a diplomatic agreement that roughly lines up with the framework laid out by Obama and Kerry this month, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll. That puts Cotton and some other Republican lawmakers firmly at odds with popular opinion – even 47 percent of Republicans surveyed supported such a deal.
Still, Cotton is standing behind his position. While supporters in favor of a negotiated settlement with Iran typically say the only other viable option to prevent the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon is open warfare, critics – including Cotton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – say a better option is to strengthen sanctions in order to force Iran to capitulate further.
“Sanctions are what brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place,” Cotton tells U.S. News in a statement. “At the very least we should strengthen the sanctions we already have in place and use them and the credible threat of military force to ensure Iran’s pathway to a bomb is stopped.” Such an approach, he says, is better than a deal that’s “just a laundry list of concessions” and would actually force Iran “to stop their illicit nuclear activities.”
And in the event military intervention becomes necessary, Cotton argues, it would hardly be on the level of the Iraq invasion.
“It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox: several days of air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior,” he recently told the Family Research Council’s Washington Watch radio program. “All we’re asking is that the president simply be as tough in the protection of America’s national security interest as Bill Clinton was.”
Some experts, meanwhile, say the argument that increased sanctions are a viable path ignores reality. The U.S. began tightening the economic screws on Iran in the 1990s, but the policies only began to truly have teeth in more recent years after the U.N. Security Council threw its weight behind such punitive efforts as a means of opening the door to diplomacy with Iran.
Should Congress block the most significant progress on curbing Iran’s nuclear program so far, many countries may decide to begin dealing with Iran again, essentially undermining the success of past punishment.
“The strength of the sanctions depends on the fact that they’re multilateral,” Galston says. “If we act on our own to strengthen sanctions, we could end up weakening them.”
Outside the Capitol halls, defense experts view lawmakers’ interventions and interjections with varying degrees of annoyance, but generally don’t see them as particularly troublesome.
“Nobody out here in the real world gives a flying fig about any of that,” says Eric Edelman, who served as the undersecretary of defense for policy under President George W. Bush. “[Defense officials] ignore it and go on with their jobs. They just try to avoid having to put up with this sort of fog machine that is Washington.”
But that doesn’t mean congressional meddling doesn’t impact diplomatic activities. Walter Slocombe, who preceded Edelman in the No. 3 role at the Pentagon under President Bill Clinton, says the extreme partisanship has disrupted what was once a smooth relationship between the Defense Department and the relevant committees in Congress.
“It’s hard to know the magnitude of the effect, but it’s hard to doubt that it’s negative,” Slocombe says. “To some degree, with foreigners, it has the effect of reminding them of what they are painfully aware of anyway.”
Cotton – in what’s become par for the course during his career thus far – may not care. Since the announcement of the framework deal, he is one of the few lawmakers who essentially have closed the door on supporting a deal, even before seeing the finalized details.
“These concessions also do nothing to stop or challenge Iran’s outlaw behavior,” he said upon news of the initial accord. “I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to protect America from this very dangerous proposal.”
U.S. News national security reporter Paul D. Shinkman contributed to this report.
Jay Nordlinger on a conservative ‘rock star.’ Editor’s Note:
Yesterday began Jay Nordlinger’s series on Tom Cotton, the Republican nominee for Congress in Arkansas’s Fourth District. For that first installment, go here. When 9/11 occurred, Cotton was in his third and final year of law school. He resolved he would join the fight. When he went to enlist, the recruiter recommended the JAG Corps — the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. This is the legal arm of the military. Cotton was, after all, a graduate of the Harvard Law School. And he had a clerkship and some private practice under his belt. Cotton said no: He wanted to fight. He went through the Army Ranger School, and went to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. Later, he volunteered for Afghanistan, where he served another tour of duty.
He was in the Army from about 2005 to 2009, leaving with the rank of captain. Among his decorations is the Bronze Star Medal. He could tell stories of combat, as any such person could — harrowing stories. He does not strike me as the type to do so, certainly not unprompted. In the summer of 2006, an unusual episode occurred: He wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times. The letter, though not published in the Times, got attention.
Here’s what happened: Soldiers were afforded some Internet time, between long patrols. Cotton used his to catch up on the news. He discovered that the New York Times had published yet more national-security secrets, this time exposing an operation to track terrorist financing. It had been a particularly rough period for Cotton, at war, and he fired off “what may have been an intemperate letter,” as he says.
Congratulations on disclosing our government’s highly classified anti-terrorist-financing program (June 23).
I apologize for not writing sooner. But I am a lieutenant in the United States Army and I spent the last four days patrolling one of the more dangerous areas in Iraq. . . . Unfortunately, as I supervised my soldiers late one night, I heard a booming explosion several miles away. I learned a few hours later that a powerful roadside bomb killed one soldier and severely injured another from my 130-man company. I deeply hope that we can find and kill or capture the terrorists responsible for that bomb. But, of course, these terrorists do not spring from the soil like Plato’s guardians. No, they require financing . . .
As your story states, the program was legal, briefed to Congress, supported in the government and financial industry, and very successful. Not anymore. You may think you have done a public service, but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here. Next time I hear that familiar explosion — or next time I feel it — I will wonder whether we could have stopped that bomb had you not instructed terrorists how to evade our financial surveillance. And, by the way, having graduated from Harvard Law and practiced with a federal appellate judge and two Washington law firms before becoming an infantry officer, I am well-versed in the espionage laws relevant to this story and others — laws you have plainly violated.
I hope that my colleagues at the Department of Justice match the courage of my soldiers here and prosecute you and your newspaper to the fullest extent of the law. By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.
When Cotton sent this letter to the Times, he also copied Power Line, the conservative blog. The Times didn’t publish the letter, but Power Line did — and it shot around the Internet. Meanwhile, Cotton was back on patrol. Another four-day patrol. When he returned to base, a private ran up to him and said, “Sir, you’ve got to go see the commander now. He is pissed.”
Cotton had no idea what he had done. Nothing unusual had happened out on patrol. The commander said, “Did you write a letter to the New York Times about some intelligence program?” Ah. “The brigade commander has seen it and he’s not happy. The battalion commander is supposed to chew you out. I think everything will be all right, but be ready for it.” This was the company commander speaking. Above him was the battalion commander, and then the brigade commander. Says Cotton, “I was nervous and worried all night long, because here I was in Iraq, leading a platoon, going out every day on patrol, as I had dreamed of doing for so long, and I didn’t know what would happen.
Would I be chewed out, pure and simple? Or would I be fired from my job or court-martialed?” There was then something of an intercession: Pete Schoomaker had seen Cotton’s letter. He was Army chief of staff. He sent around the letter by e-mail, to all his generals. “Attached for your information are words of wisdom from one of our great lieutenants in Iraq . . .” The way Cotton puts it is, “That gave me a little air cover.” A colonel at the Pentagon was good enough to send Schoomaker’s e-mail Cotton’s way.
When Cotton finally saw the battalion commander, the commander said, “Did you see the chief’s e-mail?” “Yes, sir.” “You know I was supposed to chew you out, right?” “Yes, I heard about that, sir.” “Do you know I’m now supposed to punch you on the shoulder and say ‘Attaboy’?” “I was hoping that would be the case, sir.” “Well, here’s a piece of advice: You’re new here. No one’s trying to infringe on your right to send a letter or whatnot. But next time, give your chain of command a heads-up.” (This conversation, and the one before it with the company commander, has been heavily Bowdlerized for family-friendly reading.)
A lot of people — people on the left — thought Cotton’s letter was a fake: a product of the Bush war-propaganda machine. They could not believe that someone with Cotton’s background would up and join the infantry to fight in Iraq. Even that name “Tom Cotton” seemed made up — it was a name from Tolkien, right? (Right.) After the publication of his letter by Power Line, Cotton tells me, he received “several hundred e-mails from servicemen around the world, most of them encouraging.” And how about the prosecution of the Timesmen? Does he still feel they should have been prosecuted, or does he take that back? “When people violate the espionage laws,” he says, “they should be prosecuted. They believe they have First Amendment rights, and that’s a defense they can assert in court. Reporters and editors don’t get to decide for themselves what is and is not a sensitive national-security matter.
That’s for the American people to decide through their elected representatives. If people feel Congress has passed a law infringing on their rights, they can go ahead and assert that in court.” In July 2007, Dean Barnett wrote an article for The Weekly Standard: “The 9/11 Generation: Better than the Boomers.” (The magnificent Barnett died the next year.) He told a bit of Cotton’s story. He noted that, for Cotton, joining the Army had entailed “a healthy six-figure pay cut.” But he was “infinitely happy” — Cotton’s words — he had joined. “If I hadn’t done it, I would have regretted it the rest of my life.”
After leaving the Army, Cotton went to work for McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm. He worked in several cities, depending on the client. Then he returned home, to Arkansas, to run for Congress. Which we’ll discuss tomorrow . . . To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.