In a February hearing on the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., folded himself over the microphone and launched into a line of questioning that was obviously staged but delivered with relish.
“How many recidivists are there at Guantanamo Bay right now?” he asked Brian McKeon, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, who gave him the precise perplexed response he was looking for.
“I’m not sure I follow the question,” McKeon stammered before Cotton interrupted — “The answer is none, because they’re detained.”
Cotton rattled off a series of terrorist attacks and embassy takeovers from 1979 to 9/11, talking over the Pentagon official’s responses.
“The only problem of Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now,” Cotton said, building to the crescendo. “As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell, but as long as they don’t do that, then they can rot in Guantanamo Bay!”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was left to break the tension. “Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” he quipped, “And on that happy note …”
Much has been made of the recent letter Cotton wrote directly to Iranian leaders after just over 60 days in the Senate. It is laced with that same condescension and thinly veiled threat — “It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system” — and carries the signatures of 47 of the 54-senators in the Republican majority, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s name one of the first. While the ensuing backlash has surprised some of Cotton’s co-signatories – the senator said Sunday he had “no regrets at all” — the letter itself is not surprising. It exhibits precisely the self-assured pugnacity that Cotton promised during his campaign to become the Senate’s youngest member.
“I speak today for the first time from the Senate floor with a simple message: The world is growing ever more dangerous,” Cotton said Monday night in his first floor speech, invoking Churchill in the 1930s to argue for increased defense spending. He called the White House national security strategy a “philosophy of retreat.”
“War is an awful thing, and it takes an unimaginable toll,” he said, but continued, “Our enemies and allies alike must know that aggressors will pay an unspeakable price for challenging the United States … We must have such hegemonic strength that no sane adversary would ever imagine challenging the United States.”
Can the Republicans march back into the Oval Office behind an Ivy-educated, post-9/11 war veteran, southern White male holding a recycled hawkish national security banner?
In a recent interview with Defense One ranging from the Islamic State strategy to U.S. detainee policy, Cotton lent insight into a future GOP national security platform that looks a lot like its past. But Cotton’s style is closer to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, than Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., or Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., whose positions require pragmatism.
He will not be controlled.
The Iran letter is a gamble for McConnell at a time when the majority leader must prove his party can govern in order to win the White House in 2016. Cotton may be hungry for the confrontation, but his rhetoric feeds into the GOP’s dangerous tendency to read the midterm election results and the current spate of national security crises with a hindsight-biased reductionism.
McConnell touted Cotton’s post-9/11 service on Monday as “extra authority” and congratulated him on his first floor speech. “I look forward to his leadership on all of these issues in the coming years,” he said.
But it’s clear Cotton believes his time is now.
‘Only One Choice: Whether You Win or Lose’
“If you think, as I do, that the Islamic State is dangerous, a nuclear armed Islamic Republic is even more dangerous,” Cotton said Monday. “America is largely handcuffed, watching.”
While the one-term congressman has only sponsored 13 total bills (and co-sponsored 363) between his short time in the House and the Senate, he was part of the sanctions on Iran put into place nearly two years ago. He tried and failed to add essentially an unconstitutional “corruption of blood” amendment that would’ve punished the relatives of those who violated the sanctions.
The Harvard-educated lawyer often invokes his legal background, but it was his politically-infallible military service as an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan that he wielded like a bludgeon against his opponent — and Obama — during the midterm elections, as the rise of the Islamic State and the beginning of yet another war in Iraq put national security front and center.
Cotton left the legal field after a U.S. Court of Appeals clerkship and a few years in private practice. The catalyst was 9/11, according to his bio (though he didn’t enlist for a few more years in order to pay of his law school debts, according to Molly Ball of The Atlantic). He served almost five years on active duty in the Army as an Infantry officer, both in Iraq with the 101st Airborne and also in Afghanistan with a Provincial Reconstruction Team, earning the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantry Badge and Ranger Tab, his site says. In between, he was selected to serve in the prestigious Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery.
His sterling resume and conservative purism put him on the Republicans’ radar for national office years ago with a sense of inevitability, but in helping hand his party the Senate majority, he leapfrogged pecking order to his perch on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee and a position of authority on defense.
“I would also say simply that wars are not won by paper resolutions,” he told Defense One. “They are won with resolution on the battlefield. And the main flaw is not the president’s lack of a resolution; it’s his lack of resolution in waging the fight against the Islamic State, and other radical Islamists like the government of Iran.”
He repeatedly, if implicitly, contrasts himself with Obama by saying the president is motivated by politics and lacks resolve.
“The president has not put one [detainee] there for six years,” Cotton said of the Guantanamo detention center. “That’s a critical loss of intelligence capabilities. We should be using that facility to keep America safe, not trying to close it down simply to uphold the ill-founded political promise the president made six years ago in the campaign.”
Cotton sees many of the foreign policy crises that are seemingly intractable under the Obama administration as “simple.”
When asked what he thought would be a responsible U.S. detention policy moving forward, he said, “I think a responsible detainee policy would send terrorist detainees to Guantanamo. It’s pretty simple.”
Cotton said both Obama and former President George W. Bush “handcuffed” their fight against terrorism by explicitly granting detainees certain protections. As far as he’s concerned, they’re unlawful combatants, and the international conventions don’t apply. Bush’s decision was a policy consideration, not a legal one, Cotton said: “We’re already going beyond.”
“What does the president plan to do if we capture a senior operational leader of the Islamic State? Are we gonna give them to our partners in the region?” he asked.
“Congress has made its views on detention policy very clear,” he said. “And if they were to come to the United States mainland, I can only imagine the kind of rulings and lawsuits we would see from liberal judges all around America … to grant new rights that would allow terrorists to be released and ultimately reach the American mainland.”
On the debate over an authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, against the Islamic State, Cotton’s answer is also simple, a phrase: necessary and appropriate force.
“I agree with the president – that he has all the legal authority he needs to conduct this war, to include holding detainees, under both Article II of the Constitution, and the 2001 resolution,” Cotton said. “I would be happy to vote for a simple, unconditional resolution or an amendment to the 2001 resolution that says the president is authorized to use necessary and appropriate force to destroy the Islamic State.”
But Cotton rejected the White House’s proposal for an AUMF, with a ready catchphrase. “To be precise, the president didn’t propose an AUMF, he proposed an RUMF, a restriction on the use of military force,” he said.
“It would break with precedent and not just tie this president’s hands – cause it’s not so important, since he’s tied his hands himself – but tie the next president’s hands. That is not a responsible action on the part of this or any Congress.”
So does the U.S. just hold detainees forever, as it fights a forever war?
“As long as there’s a substantial group of Islamic terrorists around the world who want to kill Americans and strike the U.S. homeland, then we have to be on offense,” he said. “Offense” to Cotton is military action, as opposed to diplomatic support for potential partners in the region waging an “ideological and intellectual war for the reform of Islam in its extremes.”
“I will advocate for fighting against Islamic terrorists for as long as they are waging war against us,” he said. “Because when your enemies are waging war against you, you don’t have a choice whether you’re involved in a war, you only have one choice: whether you win or lose the war.”