"Sarah Palin with a Harvard degree": Why new senator Tom Cotton is so frightening

New Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton may seem a step behind when he talks, but don't fall for it. Here's what he's up to

By Heather Digby Parton


Published February 12, 2015 2:29PM (EST)

  (AP/Danny Johnston)
(AP/Danny Johnston)

"How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America? I'll tell you how I respond: I'm amazed. I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am -- like most Americans, I just can't believe it because I know how good we are."

-- President George W. Bush Oct. 11, 2001, press conference

Newly elected Tom Cotton of Arkansas is one of the youngest members of the Senate, only 37 years old, a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law and a veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq. Widely considered to be a leading light on the right in foreign policy and national security, Cotton was naturally given a plum assignment on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Last week he made his debut on the national stage by posing a series of probing questions about Guantánamo to Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon that left many people in the country wondering whether Pee Wee Herman was guest lecturing the semester he studied logic at Harvard.

With a barely suppressed smirk on his handsome young face, Sen. Cotton asked,"How many recidivists are there at Guantánamo Bay right now?" Obviously the answer was none, since the recidivists he speaks of would be people who've been released from Guantánamo. Next he asked, "How many detainees at Guantánamo Bay are engaging in terrorism or anti-American incitement?" Pregnant pause. Then he answered his own question -- "None, because they're detained." Oh Suhnap!

Finally, he asked, "How many detainees were at Guantánamo Bay on September 11, 2001?" And since Guantánamo prison camp didn't exist at the time, the answer is, once again, none.

All of this strange "questioning" was done in service of advancing the idea that since terrorism existed before Guantánamo, Guantánamo is irrelevant to terrorism today. In fact, if one were to carry that string of logic all the way out, it's clear that since terrorism existed before the American Revolution, America is irrelevant to terrorism today as well. Case closed.

Cotton went on to claim that there is no good security reason for closing Guantánamo and that President Obama is just trying to fulfill a campaign promise. (This was a promise that helped bring him a very sizable electoral majority but who cares about that.) Cotton wound up his first set piece as national foreign policy maven with this thoughtful commentary:

"The only problem with Guantanamo Bay is that there are too many empty cells. 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."

All the aging hawks can rest easy. The mantle of bloodthirsty warmongers has been passed to a new generation. And unlike the veterans of yore, this one makes no tepid disclaimer that war is hell or that it should ever be avoided. He straight up wants more of it. And with the GOP on a national security tear these days, he's sure to be a big hit with the base. There's nothing they love more than a politician spouting cretinous foreign policy nonsense and ignoring all evidence that challenges their worldview.

For instance, the fact that Guantánamo continues to inspire terrorism in a whole new generation is indisputable. Yes, it's possible that "they hate us for our freedom," but they are thrilled we've given them their most successful recruiting tool by picking up a bunch of low-level grunts and completely innocent people, transporting them across the world to a prison camp where we tortured and imprisoned them for years without due process. Let's just say that it's a symbol of some stuff that doesn't make anyone any safer. As Brian McKeon stated in his testimony at the hearing, ISIS using orange jumpsuits in their videos is an example of the propaganda the U.S. handed to them. They also waterboarded some of the prisoners --- which the government fatuously insisted had nothing whatsoever to do with the U.S. torture regime. (And neither, by the way, does it help for U.S. senators to go on national television and spout dialogue even Clint Eastwood would reject as embarrassingly puerile.)

There are plenty of American military officers and national security experts who think hawks like Tom Cotton are dead wrong. People like CIA director John Brennan who said, "The prison at Guantánamo Bay undermines our national security, and our nation will be more secure the day when that prison is finally and responsibly closed." Or Brig. Gen. Michael Lehner (retired), the man responsible for setting up the Guantánamo facility, who said, "[F]or those who think our standing in the international community is important, we need to stand for American values. You have to walk the walk, talk the talk." Even the notorious terrorist symps John Mccain and Gen. David Petraeus have called for it to be closed. In fact, until the last few years, there was a bipartisan consensus that Guanánamo caused more harm than good and it was the details about how to shut it down that had everyone hung up. Sen. Cotton represents the current thinking on the right, which can be summed up with his words: "let 'em rot."

But then Cotton's original claim to fame was a letter he sent to the New York Times back in 2006 when he was still serving in Iraq. The paper declined to publish the letter but he sent it on to the conservative blog Powerline, which published it and it traveled quickly through the conservative blogosphere, making Cotton one of the first homegrown, right-wing Internet heroes. He was very angry at the paper for reporting a story about terrorist financing schemes. In his trademark smug, smart-ass style, he concluded the letter with this:

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.

I'm going to take a wild guess and assume he's not going to be one of those Republican civil libertarians forming a kumbaya circle with Rand Paul. In fact, not one of the new GOP senators is likely to fall into that category. That's a Beltway and libertarian fever dream. But you can certainly see why he rose to such early fame in right-wing circles. That brand of swaggering authoritarianism is the red meat they need to keep their coalition together in these difficult times for the party.

Tom Cotton is Ted Cruz with a war record, Sarah Palin with a Harvard degree, Chris Christie with a Southern accent --- a force to be reckoned with. He may sound like he's speaking gibberish to you or to me when he asks why there were no prisoners in Guantánamo before the prison existed, but to the Republican base he's speaking their language as clear as day and it will fit nicely on a bumper sticker: "Let 'em rot."

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Arkansas Foreign Policy George W. Bush Gop Guantanamo Bay Muslims Senate Tea Party The Right Tom Cotton