Two years ago next month, Politico wondered whether Tom Cotton, then a Republican representative from Arkansas, was the “last, best hope for the GOP hawks.”
Now two months into his first term in the Senate, the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran is doing his best to live up to that hype, having convinced 46 senators to sign on to a letter that seeks to undermine the administration’s ongoing negotiations with Iran.
For the GOP as a whole, however, the letter has the potential to hurt its short-term goal of getting Democrats to sign on to a bill to mandate congressional approval of any Iran deal brokered by the Obama administration, and also threatens the long-term goal of gaining international support for sanctions if the deal falls through. But for Cotton, the exercise and its resulting publicity has proved that he and his hawkish foreign policy goals—which include regime change in Iran and the threat of military force—are worthy of attention.
The Wall Street Journal called the letter and its media cycle “a kind of Senate coming-out party” for Cotton, who has done several TV appearances in the last two days. Hunter Schwarz at The Washington Post said he’s the “star” of the class of 2015, and compared him to another freshman senator who made a name for himself with viral moments (like when Cotton said Guantanamo prisoners could “rot in hell”), Senator Ted Cruz. “Cruz’s tactics won him fans and foes, but today, he’s the only Senate class of 2013 member considering a presidential run,” Schwarz wrote.
Cruz, along with a host of other presidential hopefuls, including Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and former Texas Governor Rick Perry have all given their support to Cotton's letter.
The benefits of the letter strategy aren’t as clear for the rest of the GOP. Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic argued that the letter may give Iran an excuse to abandon the talks and blame the U.S., which would hurt America’s case for strong sanctions within the international community. “[I]f America’s partners—particularly those in Asia—come to believe that it was the U.S., rather than the Iranian leadership, that subverted the talks, the cause of invigorated sanctions will be damaged, possibly grievously,” Goldberg wrote.
That may already be coming to pass. On Tuesday Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the same minister who called the Cotton letter a “propaganda ploy,” told a group of clerics that, “This kind of letter is unprecedented and undiplomatic. In truth, it told us that we cannot trust the United States,” Agence Free-Presse reported.
The letter also undermines efforts within the Senate to pass a bipartisan bill by Senator Bob Corker that would require Congress to review and approve or disapprove any Iran deal. Corker, one of the seven GOP senators who didn’t sign Cotton's letter, said he didn’t think it would be “constructive” to add his name, given his goal of getting a veto-proof 67 votes on his bill. Some of his Republican co-sponsors, including John McCain, Graham, Rubio, and Paul, disagreed and signed the Cotton letter. Meanwhile, getting to 67 requires Democratic support, and some are arguing that this makes it easier for Democrats to side with the administration.
Cotton himself hasn’t gotten off scot-free. Andrew C. McCarthy at The National Review argued that while the letter is “a step in the right direction” it “is unfortunate in a couple of respects.” Specifically, it said the Senate ratifies treaties when it does not, an embarrassing error for a constitutional lawyer. McCarthy also argued, it’s “gratingly grandiose” for members of Congress to say they’ll be around for decades.
But the more widespread argument—that Cotton and the other 46 Senators are traitors—died out pretty quickly. Constitutional law experts pointed out that politically and legally the White House doesn’t have a case to accuse the Senators for treason. Peter Beinart at The Atlantic said that while he didn’t support the letter, calling Cotton a traitor was “left-wing Cheneyism.”
Brian Beutler at the left-leaning The New Republic argued that the problem with the letter wasn’t its method of delivery, but the agenda of the person responsible for it. “What makes Cotton reckless isn’t so much that he’s willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve his purpose. Its that his purpose is extremely unwise,” he wrote.
For Cotton, an ambitious young politician who probably has his sights set beyond the Senate, the Iran letter has only reminded people—his fans and his detractors—that he makes a decent chunk of his colleagues look dovish by comparison.
“Pick a topic—Syria, Iran, Russia, ISIS, drones, NSA snooping—and Cotton can be found at the hawkish outer edge of the debate, demanding a continuation or escalation of the Cheney line more consistently and vociferously than nearly any of his peers,” David Ramsey, an Arkansas journalist, wrote in The New Republic in January.
At the time Cotton had only been in in Congress a few days, but Ramsey was arguing that Cotton could blow up the 2016 GOP primary and force the party to decide how aggressive it wants its foreign policy to be. On Iran, the GOP seems ready to follow Cotton, who once said “the surest way to preserve the peace, and to prevent war, is to be prepared for war.”