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Tom Cotton: No ordinary freshman congressman

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He is 6-foot-5 and rail-thin. His erect posture reveals his military training. However, freshman congressman-elect Tom Cotton is not simply physically striking; in experience and depth, he is unlike most of his soon-to-be-colleagues. The 35-year-old Arkansan graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School, clerked for an appellate judge and practiced law. Then he volunteered as an infantryman in the U.S. Army, serving five years in active duty, starting with Iraq where he led a platoon in the 101st Airborne Division. After Iraq he served as platoon leader at Arlington National Cemetery, conducting military honors for funerals. He then volunteered for duty in Afghanistan. He has been repeatedly decorated. He also racked up time as a management consultant for McKinsey and Co. Oh, and he worked on his family farm.

He is a fresh face in Washington, but he is a familiar figure to many conservatives immersed in foreign policy. He has been attending and speaking at national security symposiums for several years now.

I sat down with Cotton this morning on Capitol Hill. So far he’s been busy with the raft of administrative details that descend on new lawmakers, but he’s clear on why he is coming to Congress: “To solve the country’s problems. … In the end campaigning is a means to an end, serving in office and improving the country,” he said. Given his national security background, he’s interested in the foreign affairs and armed services committees as well as the budget committee. But he hastened to add, “One thing I learned is that every committee has some important issues.”

Hawks are nervous that, with the retirement of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and the demands of a fiscal crisis, fewer lawmakers will be interested in and devoted to national security. Cotton is sanguine, pointing to 12 military veterans on the GOP side in the freshman class. He recalled the favorable reaction he got on the campaign trail whenever he said, “No matter what the state of the economy, the first responsibility of the federal government is to keep America safe.”

The sequestration part of the “fiscal cliff” may very well wreak havoc on the Defense Department. Cotton understands the fiscal emergency, but he told me, “I tend to agree with [Rep.] Paul Ryan and [Sen.] Pat Toomey: We need to have the same level of cuts but we need to reconfigure it.” He is especially concerned about the across-the-board cuts required under the Budget Control Act. “You can’t cut 11 percent of an aircraft carrier, ” he noted. Moreover, he worried, “The biggest impact will be on personnel. Like any big corporation, the biggest cost [in the military] is people.” This is especially true in the current military environment, where we have “low-platform, high-personnel” engagement, making well-trained and -equipped forces on the ground more vital than ever.

Cotton speaks as fluently on the nitty-gritty of military budget planning as well as he does about China. He wryly took issue with the president’s suggestion in the last debate that ships were as outmoded as bayonets and horses. “My first four hours in basic training was in bayonet training. And we’ve used horses in a number of special operations.” As for China, he dubs it a “strategic rival.” He cautioned that while there are areas of cooperation, “We should not be Pollyannish.” In addition to keeping a strong military presence, he said, “To influence China, we need to remain close to our allies in East Asia.”

He readily acknowledges that Americans are war-weary, but he attributes that largely to a lack of leadership: “It is unsurprising that the American people are war-weary when the commander in chief is war-weary.” He criticized the president for talking incessantly about withdrawal, noting in his low-key manner, “I’m not sure the last time he said ‘victory’ — maybe on election night.”

Cotton certainly advocates a strong U.S. presence in the world. He recalled, “What I used to say in the campaign was, ‘You may be tired of war, but war is not tired of you.’ There are evil people in the world who would do evil things.” Because of questions about U.S. resolve, he pointed out, “Certain Middle East countries are hedging and edging closer to Iran.” He said, “It’s important to remind the American people why we’re still engaged, [to] still maintain force projection, stand with Israel … because it is not something they experience firsthand. They experience the economy, but they don’t experience Gaza or Libya or Afghanistan.”

He continued, “Left to its own devices, public opinion would look at Libya and Egypt and say, Let’s wash our hands of it all. In fact, Libya is very different from Egypt.” (He explains that Libya, devoid of institutions and a unified military, is pro-American while Egypt has a military but, for example, refused to deploy it to protect our embassy when protests erupted Sept. 11.)

The U.S. military is not the only instrument of foreign policy, he said: “I’m not opposed to ‘soft power’ by any means. I’m opposed to the inept use of soft power.” Pointing to the array of tools — trade, aid, military alliances, multilateral bodies — Cotton said, “We need to use them well to protect American interests.” He cautioned against cutting foreign aid, dinging Texas Gov. Rick Perry for suggesting that we zero out foreign aid and start from scratch. “Part of that aid is a 10-year memorandum of understanding with Israel that helps give it a qualitative military advantage. It is important to be able to sign long-term agreements like that.” He pointed out that, for relatively small sums, foreign aid can produce significant benefits for the recipient and for America’s standing.

I asked Cotton, what have we accomplished in Afghanistan in four years. It’s a question I’ve had a hard time getting a persuasive answer to in recent months. As well as anyone whom I’ve asked, Cotton sketched out what we’ve accomplished: “We achieved nearly total victory in the south, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. That is the historic haven of the Taliban.” He noted that, because the president did not give the military a full complement of troops and placed a deadline on them, we did not get full results in the east, which has been problematic because of the porous border with Pakistan. He also pointed out that with a U.S. military presence there, “It allowed us to run counterterrorism operations. You have to have bases, security personnel … to strike against senior terrorists, including Osama bin Laden.” You can see progress in the south and “count the bodies of dead terrorists,” he continued, but we have also made less quantifiable progress in helping to build up Afghan police and military forces. When I asked him whether it will all be lost after we leave in 2014, he paused, looked ahead and then replied: “It is an open question.”

Success will be determined in part by whether we have an adequate force in Afghanistan that can do something and not be simply a target. Cotton agrees with the estimate of military gurus Kim and Fred Kagan that the bare minimum is 35,000. He analogizes the situation to training marches in the military that required troops to carry 50 pounds on their backs: On weight scales, all the numbers below 50 pounds are taped over. “If you have less than 50, you got nothing,” Cotton said, explaining that In Afghanistan 10,000 or 15,000 isn’t necessarily better than nothing. “There is a certain point below which you might as well be at zero.”

Cotton’s life experience is much more varied, not to mention interesting, than the average congressman’s. He says his models include Ryan and Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and John McCain ( R-Ariz.) (“I don’t agree with him on everything but there is no one more ferocious and tougher in defending American interests.”)

Like his role models, Cotton has the potential to do big things in Congress at a time when bombast often substitutes for smarts and ego trumps common sense.  He also gives one hope that if America produces young men and women like him, the future is not entirely bleak.