In a recent profile of Tom Cotton, the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Willick characterized the 40-year-old junior Republican senator from Arkansas as “hawkish and realistic” and described his worldview as “tinged with idealism.” Yet it was unclear what the unabashedly Strangelovian Cotton did to earn such a charitable description, as he rattled off a series of opinions that amounted to a call for world war without end.
Cotton told Willick he favored arming Japan and South Korea with nuclear weapons to counter North Korea, an unprecedented escalation that would bring the region a stride closer to armageddon. China, according to Cotton, is a “rival in every regard” that must be isolated economically and confronted militarily with aggressive freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. (The senator ignored a recent Rand assessment that found the US could easily find itself outmatched in a duel with the Chinese military.) From eastern Europe to Asia to the Middle East, Cotton urged regime change operations to replace governments that resisted Pax Americana with “countries that share our principles.” On Iran, Cotton would accept nothing short of war, imagining a cakewalk that would only require “several days” of bombing, as he has previously said.
Cotton’s remarks are especially disturbing in light of rumors of his potential nomination as CIA director. Reports surfaced this November of a coming reshuffle that would move Mike Pompeo, a longtime stooge of the Koch Brothers and evangelical Muslim basher, from CIA to Secretary of State, dislodging the insufficiently loyal Rex Tillerson, who Trump has trashed as “weak on everything.” While the Cotton appointment may not happen in the immediate future, he still appears to be next in line to take the helm at Langley in the Trump administration. If the move ever takes place, one of the key hubs of the national security state would fall into the hands of a militant neoconservative whose worldview was formed through prolonged cultivation in a right-wing hothouse.
Cotton would hardly be the first ideologue to take the helm at Langley. During the 1950s, Allen Dulles used the CIA as a vehicle to recruit a collection of Nazi war criminals and mafia henchmen for covert anti-communist campaigns across Europe, develop the failed mind control program MK ULTRA and plot assassinations and international intrigues in order to topple popular governments. Then there was Bill Casey, who painted the Soviet Union as the puppet master of international terrorism in order to justify secretly funding Central American death squads through the world’s most unsavory third parties.
But Cotton is in a class of his own, not because he is an unbridled zealot, but because he would be the first fully developed product of the neoconservative movement to rise to such a sensitive position. If appointed, he is almost certain to militarize intelligence in the service of the Saudi-Israeli axis and drive their destabilizing anti-Iranian agenda to terrifying extremes.
The path to power, from Harvard to Iraq
Cotton’s grooming as a neocon cadre began at Harvard University, where he won a fellowship from the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank in California that fused the anti-gay kulturkampf with libertarian “starve the beast” economics. At the Harvard Crimson, Cotton emerged as a prolific voice of preppy reaction, promoting divorce-proof “covenant marriages” as a remedy for social decay, upholding political apathy as a virtue and activism as a vice, and hailing the valor of professional golfers. Cotton’s senior thesis at Harvard was an ode to the most elitist, anti-democratic themes contained in the Federalist Papers. “Inflammatory passion and selfish interest characterizes most men, whereas ambition characterizes men who pursue and hold national office,” Cotton wroteof the Founding Fathers. “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.”
His own ambition vaulted him into the ranks of the U.S. Army as it barreled across Iraq and sent the country spiraling into a sectarian bloodbath. From inside armored personnel carriers and behind the barrel of a gun, Cotton experienced his only substantive engagement with the people of the global south. It was clearly a formative period that left him brimming with hostility. “One thing I learned in the Army is that when your opponent is on his knees, you drive him to the ground and choke him out,” he reflected this October. Though he failed to earn any special distinction on the battlefield, Cotton resorted to opinion writing to earn a bit of fame back home.
In January 2006, New York Times correspondents Eric Lichtblau and James Risen revealed the existence of a warrantless CIA program that examined the financial records of American citizens suspected of terrorist involvement. The story appeared almost simultaneously in several other papers, triggering a public tantrum from Vice President Dick Cheney. From his garrison in Iraq, Cotton saw a perfect opportunity to rally the conservative shock troops back in the States. He fired off an indignant email to the New York Times and cc’ed a right-wing blog, Powerline, for good measure. Citing his credentials as a Harvard Law grad and former law clerk, Cotton demanded Lichtblau, Risen and their editor, Bill Keller, be jailed under the Espionage Act: “By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars,” he thundered at the journalists.
George W. Bush’s approval rating was hovering around 30 percent by this point, public support for the war had evaporated and Americans were coming home by the thousands in wheelchairs and coffins. But here was a young platoon leader — a Harvard Law grad, no less — willing to defend the war on terror against the treasonous nabobs of negativism. When Powerline published the letter, Cotton became an instant folk hero among right-wing Iraq war dead-enders. Before he had even returned home to his family’s cattle farm in Arkansas, his political career had been made.
The great neocon hope
Cotton first entered Congress in 2012 as a representative from the formerly Democratic Arkansas district that contained Bill Clinton’s hometown. Iran-bashing became his hobby horse, prompting him to introduce an extreme "Corruption of Blood” bill that would have forbidden trade with the relatives of Iranian individuals who were under sanctions, from their great-grandchildren to their nieces and uncles. Panned as an outrageous violation of the Constitution, the bill died on the House floor, an embarrassing rebuke to the self-styled constitutional law expert. (Article III of the Constitution forbids punishing the relatives of those convicted of treason, while the Fifth Amendment grants due process even to non-citizens charged with crimes.)
Cotton struck out the following year on a campaign to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. On the stump, he demonstrated all the charisma of a filing cabinet, compensating for his lifeless delivery with incendiary warningsthat a coalition of ISIS terrorists and Mexican drug cartels would overrun the country unless the southern border was sealed off with a Maginot-style wall. Cotton won in a landslide, sailing into the Senate on the strength of surging anti-Obama sentiment and piles of cash from Likudnik oligarchs.
As Eli Clifton and Jim Lobe reported, the second largest source of funding for Cotton’s senate campaign was Paul Singer, the pro-Israel venture capitalist who has bankrolled a who’s who of neocon outfits in Washington. Cotton also benefited from nearly a million dollars in supportive advertising from the Emergency Committee for Israel, a right-wing group founded by the face of the neocon movement, Bill Kristol. ECI operated for a time out of the offices of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, the group that drummed up support for regime change in Iraq. This office also housed Orion Strategies, the lobbying firm that has represented the governments of Taiwan and the Republic of Georgia, two of the key US-backed bulwarks against China and Russia.
A relentless drive toward war with Iran
In the Senate, Cotton’s obsession with Iran deepened by the day. Within weeks of his swearing-in, he orchestrated an explosive letter signed by 46 Republican senatorial colleagues and addressed to the “Leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Published on Senate letterhead, the missive aimed to convince Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to disregard the power of President Barack Obama to implement the internationally brokered P5+1 nuclear non-proliferation negotiations. The arguably unprecedented stunt led to accusations that Cotton had violated the Logan Act, which forbade diplomatic freebooting.
While the White House fumed, Cotton tweeted a translated version of his letter to Khamenei, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani. But in his haste, it appeared Cotton had acted without the help of a native Farsi speaker and simply run the letter through Google translate: “We hope while the nuclear negotiations are progressing this letter enriching your knowledge of our constitutional system and mutual clear understanding elevating,” the concluding line read.
A day after the diplomatic fiasco, Cotton scrambled off to a private event with the National Defense Industrial Association, the lobbying arm of America’s top arms merchants. Cotton’s rhetoric on Iran was music to the ears of the weapons industry. “The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” he declared. “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism.” The senator found a natural ally in Riyadh, the political vortex of theocratic despotism. “This arms deal sends the right message to both friend and foe alike,” Cotton stated, describing it as a step “to maintain peace in the region.”
Cotton has insisted that “there are no mythical moderates” among Iran’s leadership. Even worse, according to him, was the fact that the Iranian government was “already in control of Tehran.” While Cotton melted down over the Iranian government’s presence in its own capital, most Iranians seem to have accepted that the United States was comfortably in control of Washington.
Trump’s open embrace of the Saudi-Israeli axis has elevated Cotton’s influence, transforming him into the administration’s congressional Iran whisperer. While advising efforts to whittle away at the Iran nuclear deal, he has co-sponsored legislation to make it easier to reimpose sanctions despite Iran’s faithful compliance with the agreement. Cotton’s presence in the Senate is so central to the neocon agenda that the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes has argued againsthis promotion to CIA director. But as Cotton made clear in his senior thesis long ago, he views himself as a man of destiny driven to the heights of power by limitless ambition. Before long, the world could become a laboratory for his own "inflammatory passion."