Conservative hawks in need of a pep talk after the Syria debacle — driven in part by isolationist Republicans — could do no better than spending time chatting with freshman Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). A Harvard grad who volunteered to fight in the infantry, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, he recently announced he’s running against Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who is widely regarded as the most vulnerable of the incumbent Senate Democrats.
Cotton speaks with a soft southern accent, but his message is sharp and his arguments are tightly constructed. He thinks that many Republicans who opposed the authorization for force in Syria aren’t adherents to an isolationist outlook. He says in a phone interview, “From my perspective in talking with constituents and peers, most acknowledged we have interests in Syria. It was more a concern about Barack Obama.” And while he conceded it was reasonable to be concerned about a feckless operation that might be worse than no action, he told me, “I didn’t see it that way.”
He’s more optimistic about the party and the country’s support for a robust national security than some hawks. He argues that rather than an embrace of isolationism, what we is wrong “is mostly leadership and mostly Barack Obama.” When asking Americans to go to war he said, “It’s incumbent on the president to lay the predicate [for action.].” Given that President Obama declared his mission was to “end wars” and didn’t talk in terms of military victories Cotton doesn’t find it surprising that the public opposed military action.
Contrary to the spin of isolationists, support for adequate military spending and for a forward-leaning foreign policy aren’t losers with voters, at least not in Arkansas which has high rates of military volunteerism and veterans in the state. “They do believe in peace through strength and do believe Israel is a key ally, ” he says. “In general, in my experience, my fellow Arkansans do believe the United States is a force for good in the world.” He is convinced that voters will be receptive to an argument that ignoring problems makes them worse. In Syria, and more generally, Cotton makes the case, “I do think that if America can lead from ahead we can get ahead of issues.”
He points approvingly to France’s leadership in Mali, which had become a failed state and safe harbor for jihadists. He tells me that voters may wonder what interest we could have in Mali or any number of countries that aren’t instantaneously recognizable. But he says we must understand, “Some of these countries are where Afghanistan was in 2001.” He includes Syria in the category of potential sanctuaries for terrorist operations.
Moving to the sequester, he makes clear he’s not in favor of more federal spending overall. “I support the top line level in spending, but within that we should prioritize away from bloated domestic programs in favor of the military,” he says, rattling off the list of inadequacies in our Army, Navy and Air Force. He frames the concern realistically, “Listen we have the mightiest military in history. But it’s worrisome what they’ll be able to do in one or two or three years.” And squeezing military budgets, he cautions, may send a message to Iran that we’re incapable of defending our interests.
He recently went to Israel and has long been a supporter of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Regardless of this administration, he says, “The support for Israel is very strong and the votes in favor of Iran sanctions reflects the policy preference not only of Congress, but of their constituents.” That doesn’t simply mean maintaining Israel’s qualitative military advantage; it requires a broader commitment to the region. He observes, “It’s hard to be a strong and reliable if we try to withdraw from the greater Middle East.” As an example he cites Jordan which is being destabilized by the Syrian war. If Jordan becomes a failed state, “Then Israel will have [jihadists] not only in the north and in the south but in the streets of Jerusalem.” He rejects the notion that the United States can be supportive of Israel without projecting its power and influence in the region. “If the U.S. is not engaged in foreseeing and trying to forestall second and third level effects it will be a danger to Israel.”
I ended by asking if he is pessimistic or optimistic. He jokes, “Yes!” He acknowledges, “There is cause for pessimism, but we’ve been there before.” He points to the end of Jimmy Carter’s tenure. He then catches himself, reminding me, “We have 40 months left of Barack Obama.”
And that really is the concern for many internationalists on both sides of the aisle. What damage will be done and what genies will come permanently out of their bottles before a new president gets into office? Cotton argues that it will be essential to retake the Senate and keep the House. That’s true especially on the domestic side, but then again we’ve learned the hard way over the last few weeks that Congress really can’t force a president to command.
All lawmakers like Cotton can do is sound the alarm and offer cogent explanations for more forceful U.S. leadership. If you think he and others can do that effectively, then you’d probably agree with Cotton’s final words: “There are genuine and serious causes for pessimism. But also for optimism.”