The Big Question

Sen. Tom Cotton
Sen. Tom Cotton

Despite having served in the Senate for little less than three months, freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is making his presence felt through his willingness to stand on his own and advocate a hawkish foreign policy. While his antics have alienated fellow lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill — including some from his own party — others believe that Cotton’s ideology is representative of a new generation of Republican lawmakers.

Cotton stirred up controversy last week by authoring an open letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which condescendingly explained, citing two constitutional provisions, why no deal resulting from the P5+1 nuclear negotiation among the United States, its international allies and Iran would have any permanence unless voted for and approved by Congress.

“What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revote such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen, and
future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time,” wrote Cotton.

The letter, which was signed by 47 Republican senators, was blasted by Democrats who said that a senator, especially one who has been in the Senate only for a couple of months, has no right to interfere in the presidential domain of foreign policy and to engage foreign leaders. Some even went as far as calling Cotton’s actions an act of treason.

Although Cotton made his maiden speech on the Senate floor on Monday, he already has shown his colors early, passionately criticizing administration officials who testified for one of the three committees on which he sat and displaying extremely hawkish foreign policy views that previously were only matched by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Some observers, such as Elliot Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who previously held high-level foreign policy positions in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, read the controversy over Cotton’s letter as a sign that a new generation of veteran lawmakers are picking up the mantle of leadership and asserting themselves on defense issues.

“If you look at Tom Cotton and you look at some of the others, you really have a new generation of Republican leadership, and they’re veterans,” said Abrams. “I’m a great fan of Tom Cotton. I think, first of all, he’s very smart and he knows a great deal about foreign policy. He has a terrific academic record and a terrific military record.”

The tall, lanky Cotton is native of Dardanelle, Ark., (population 5,000) who looks more like a farm-raised high school track athlete than a sitting U.S. senator. Cotton, 37, is also the Senate’s youngest member. But his appearance and thick Arkansas drawl belies an elite academic pedigree — undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University. His military credentials are just as impressive, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, receiving a Bronze Star for his service.

After serving only one term in the House of Representatives, Cotton took advantage of the favorable GOP headwind during the last election to take on incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor. Pryor sensed his weakness as a Democrat in a state quickly turning to favor Republicans and enlisted the help of a former Arkansas governor, President Bill Clinton, to stump with him throughout the state. The race became one of the hottest contests in the country with both candidates spending astronomical sums of cash raised mostly through large donors from outside of their state. Pryor, who ran unopposed six years earlier, raised $12.5 million and spent $14.6 million in the race — three times as much as when he defeated an incumbent in 2002. But even with the flood of money and help from Clinton on his home turf, Pryor lost.

Cotton’s fundraising was likewise impressive, raising and spending approximately $13.9 million, and his list of donors included far-right political superstars and donors such as Weekly Standard editor-in-chief and political pundit Bill Kristol, mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, President George and Laura Bush, David and Charles Koch — better known collectively as the Koch Brothers — and Abrams to list only a few.

All of these donors could be found contributing to GOP presidential candidates in a general election, but they don’t always align on down-ballot races such as those for Senate and House.

Even the Koch brothers sometimes disagree between themselves with David Koch preferring more traditional Republican candidates and Charles Koch tending to side with more libertarian candidates.

Cotton managed to bridge the gap between foreign policy-minded Republicans and fiscal conservatives. He was a rare candidate who appealed to both neoconservatives and paleoconservatives — an ideology that espouses limited government and non-interventionist foreign policy with traditional social values.

Cotton does not have the slightly isolationist tendencies of a paleoconservative and the truly isolationist ideology of libertarians. Yet, he doesn’t quite fit the mold of a neoconservative either. Abrams believes these battles and terms are from the 1980s and ‘90s and no longer apply.

“What you’re talking about here is a new generation of people who fought in Afghanistan and/or Iraq and are now watching, from their point of view, a decline in American power and prestige, and they don’t like it,” said Abrams.

In attempting to explain Cotton’s line of thought on foreign policy, Abrams referred to political scientist and Bard College and Yale University professor Walter Russell Mead, who once describe a lingering “Jacksonian influence on American foreign policy,” which is named for early 19th-century President Andrew Jackson.

Abrams defined the concept as Americans, often from places such as Arkansas, “who don’t necessarily want us involved in every international matter but believe that the United States has to be strong and respected and that when you’re involved, you fight to win.”

But negative political reaction caused by Cotton’s letter to the ayatollah has made some Republican senators, even some who signed the letter, back down or explain their positions, particularly Republicans senators in blue states who re taking heat from angry constituents.

The fear among Republicans and their staffs was that the partisan, open attack on the authority of President Barack Obama would steer Democrats from supporting two pieces of legislation on Iran — the Kirk-Menendez Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act that calls for additional sanctions if a deal is not reached and a bill written by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that calls for the president to send the final deal to Congress for approval. The president has promised to veto both bills.

Key supporters of these bills and their staff had been working on building a bipartisan coalition of 67 senators in order to override a guaranteed presidential veto. Most now feel that Cotton’s unilateral action has jeopardized this coalition.

Some staff members of senators who signed Cotton’s letter — for whom the focus is specifically on the issues of foreign policy and Iran — also felt slighted by the way the letter was put together. Since senators are responsible for knowing about every subject, staff is responsible for providing a more detailed assessment to guide the lawmaker’s actions.

Instead, Cotton went directly to his colleagues by circulating the letter for signatures at the senators’ weekly conference lunch and by phoning them directly, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“While it’s not an everyday occurrence for a member to approach another member to sign a letter, it’s also not an unusual practice when a member is extremely eager to get a letter out,” said a senior aide who was not authorized to speak on the record. “That said, members are probably best served when they have had a chance to carefully go over with advisory staff the pros and cons of signing a letter, especially a controversial one.”

While the effect the letter on foreign policy is still unknown, there is a feeling among some Republican staffers that Cotton’s actions have served more as self-aggrandizement at the expense of collective party strategy.

Yet, despite the collateral damage inflicted by Cotton, the letter did get the administration to publicly admit that an executive order could be replaced by a future president who disagrees with the deal.

Abrams said that the letter did not change his opinion of Cotton.

“I think [what] people are missing [is] that this was an open letter,” said Abrams. “There was no contact between Cotton and the other senators with the government of Iran.”

An open letter is “like an op-ed. It’s just that at the top it says, ‘To the leaders of the Islamic Republic,’ instead of saying, ‘To the readers of The New York Times,’” he added. “I think that’s a big difference, because if you say that senators can’t do an open letter, you’re saying that they’re role is to shut up, and that’s not our constitutional system.”

Abrams recalled that in 2007, during his time with the Bush administration, then- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) traveled to Syria to speak to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite disapproval from the administration.

“At that moment, it was the policy of the United States to try to isolate Assad, and the president specifically asked her not to go,” Abrams recalled.  “We went through a period there of about a year or two where no European foreign minister visited Damascus. The isolation of Assad was working, and then she broke it.”

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