(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Tom Cotton's endless war: What his ongoing crusade against the Iran deal says about the GOP

Visiting Israel this week, the freshman senator showed he'll take politics beyond the water's edge -- again

Gary Legum
September 2, 2015 6:53PM (UTC)

If you’re Tom Cotton, the junior United States Senator from Arkansas, what better way to spend a week of your summer vacation than traveling to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government has been waging an all-out lobbying campaign to kill President Obama’s historic nuclear arms control deal with Iran? It beats a week on a Disney cruise, I guess.

I have a long-standing fascination with the conservative movement’s veneration of Sen. Cotton, the answer to the question “What would have happened if Doug Niedermeyer had been elected to the Senate instead of Bluto Blutarsky?” If there is a factory somewhere – perhaps deep beneath the offices of the American Enterprise Institute – building the perfect robotic young foot soldier for conservatism, I imagine the final product rolls off the assembly line looking a lot like Tom Cotton. Even granting that I’m a biased liberal, I see nothing in his record beyond some well-written words of jingoistic self-righteousness that would indicate superstar qualities.


As Molly Ball of The Atlantic documented in a terrific profile last year, Cotton seems to have come to his conservative views as a teenager and then spent the next few years doing everything he could to cement them in place. At Harvard he was one of the few conservatives on the famously liberal campus. He worked for right-wing professors and penned worshipful reviews of their books for the Harvard Crimson. After law school he enlisted in the military and went off to fight, first in Iraq and later in Afghanistan.

After returning home, Cotton spent some time consulting for McKinsey & Company and managing his family’s farm in Arkansas. Then he spent one term serving in the House of Representatives before running for and winning his Senate seat, largely on the back of his reputation as a diehard conservative. He certainly wasn’t in the House long enough to amass much of a record, nor to become accomplished in the sort of logrolling that being an effective legislator requires.

So basically, his qualifications for Republican sainthood amount to a few years battling leftists at Harvard and Muslims in the Middle East. Which is pretty much the same thing in conservative eyes. Oh, and he is beloved by Bill Kristol, the political Nostradamus of the right who has an infallible eye for political talent.


Playing in a smaller pool in the Senate, Cotton has distinguished himself mostly as a person who never seems to know what he’s talking about. Particularly when talking about foreign policy, and even more particularly when talking about Iran, Cotton is a walking humorless assemblage of conservative bullet points that he regularly spits out with the programmed authenticity of the talking computer in “War Games.” This single-mindedness makes him either a dangerous ideologue or the Senate’s equivalent of Mr. Magoo, blindly but confidently stumbling from his own little world into reality over and over and over again, without ever being affected in his attitudes and opinions.

Take his famous letter to the leaders of Iran. Back in March, just two months into his first term in the Senate, Cotton convinced 46 of his Republican colleagues to sign one of the most ill-considered diplomatic correspondences since the Zimmerman telegram. In the letter, Cotton helpfully explained to the Iranian mullahs that there was no point in their agreeing to a nuclear arms control agreement with President Obama because any such deal will get tossed in the garbage as soon as a Republican is back in the White House. And indeed, multiple contenders for the GOP nomination for 2016 have promised to tear up the deal their first day in office, which would be more of a concern if any of them had a prayer in hell of being elected.

Cotton’s letter led to widespread condemnation from the White House, Democrats in Congress, even a few Republicans. Some of the Senators who signed it immediately distanced themselves by saying they had read and signed it in haste, which does not exactly inspire confidence in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body but does lead one to wonder what else we could fool these guys into signing. Someone please draft the Free Beer for Life for All Americans Act of 2015 and put it in front of the Senate Republicans, chop-chop.


The letter also led to one of the great moments in, as the kids call it, pwning. When the foreign minister of Iran knows more about how America’s Constitution works than you, an elected representative of America, it’s perhaps incumbent on you to examine your life choices.

Which brings us to this week’s trip to Israel and Cotton’s continued very public attempts to undermine the Obama administration as it works to secure Congressional support for the Iran deal. No one disputes that there is a role for Congress in shaping foreign policy. Although particularly in the decision about whether or not to wage war, it is a role that the legislative branch has ceded to the executive more and more over the last few decades. But there is also an old saw that politics stops at the water’s edge, which legislators have long taken to mean that they will not travel overseas to visibly undercut a president’s policies with the leaders of foreign nations. Like so many of the old political norms, it has long since gone out the window in our highly polarized era. And Tom Cotton is the purest distillation of this conflict, a bathtub of the most blindness-inducing moonshine in the national still.


Uncommon Knowledge: Tom Cotton on Nuclear Weapons in Iran


Gary Legum

MORE FROM Gary Legum

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •