Stand Down, Senator Cotton

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. arrives to pose for photographers in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 11, 2015.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. arrives to pose for photographers in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 11, 2015.

An American bombing campaign on Iran is the last thing we – or they – need.

The junior senator from Arkansas and GOP foreign policy strategist apparent Tom Cotton proposed on Wednesday that “several days of air and naval bombing” would be sufficient to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.

For his inspiration, Cotton draws on 1998’s Operation Desert Fox, the four-day campaign by the Clinton administration that bombarded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with 415 cruise missiles and 600 laser-guided bombs.

The problem with this analogy is that Desert Fox hardly stopped Republican calls for further intervention in Iraq. Only days after the operation, the Project for a New American Century, headed by Cotton’s mentor Bill Kristol, released a memo that made their position abundantly clear: “Now that the dust has settled from the 70-hour aerial attack on Iraq, it has become clear that the only solution for the threat Iraq poses is to remove Saddam.”

It is remarkable that Cotton’s case for limited war is built upon such a slippery slope and assumes that the American public has completely forgotten the Iraq experience. The senator began a recent radio interview by chastising President Barack Obama for “a bad habit of accusing other people of making false choices.” But what about the bad habit of the neoconservative right wing in dragging our country into deeply unnecessary Middle East wars?

(Related: Tom Cotton, the GOP’s Newest Hawk, Takes Flight)

As a fellow infantryman and Iraq veteran, I’m dismayed to hear Cotton’s cavalier attitude toward a major conflict with arguably the most organized and militarized country in the Middle East. As we’ve learned time after time, bombing campaigns are far from the simple, surgical, and sanitary option that tough-talking politicians so often want them to be. Yes, we have the most powerful air force in the history of the world, but no, that doesn’t make airstrikes a panacea for every foreign policy problem. When errant bombs strike schools and hospitals, and in turn radicalize more terrorists than were killed in the initial air strike, we fail to gain any advantage from that operation.

Senator Cotton, please stand down. Despite your best efforts, tough diplomacy is keeping America safe. 

Iraq was subject to multilaterally managed no-fly zones for years after the Gulf War, leaving the pilots of Desert Fox fairly safe from Iraqi retaliation. Iran, by contrast, has an entirely capable air force, surface-to-air missile capabilities, and a navy that could move to counter U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf. This means a host of new essential targets for the senator’s limited conflict.

On the larger scale, Cotton’s vision seemingly fails to consider the thought that Iran’s military might consider reacting to an attack on their country by threatening other American interests. Iranian forces on the ground in Iraq, currently working cooperatively (if clandestinely) with U.S. advisors against the Islamic State, or ISIS, could change their tune in a hurry. The Iranian Navy could move to restrict oil shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, triggering an economic crisis. And Hezbollah could launch a new round of attacks against Israel.

So Cotton foolishly poses a reckless endangerment of American lives, allies, and interests, based on a past failure of limited intervention. And to what end? The strategic consequences of his actions are perhaps the most bizarre part of the proposal. You can’t bomb away a country’s understanding of nuclear science—this is technical knowledge that’s been around since the 1940s. At best, the Cotton campaign would damage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and set the program back a few years, notably less than the decades-plus terms of the proposed Iranian deal on the table.

Such an attack would certainly affect the political dynamic inside Iran. As much as Cotton doesn’t make a distinction between different Iranians, the tug of war between conservatives and reformists is very real and relevant to Iranian foreign policy. Why would we strike Iran when we finally have some momentum behind moderate causes within the Iranian government and on the streets of Tehran? A preemptive strike by the United States would provide precisely the momentum that hardliners need to push for the development of a nuclear deterrent, close off chances for the détente so many sense is finally coming, and swing back to the right.

Senator Cotton, please stand down. Despite your best efforts, tough diplomacy is keeping America safe. Negotiations have frozen and even rolled back Iran’s nuclear program for the first time in history. The framework agreement represents a historic opportunity to block Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon, and it does so without costing a single American service member’s life.

At least we can agree that politicians have bad habits to kick, starting with “beating the drums of war.”

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