Over the course of just a few days last week, Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) went from relatively anonymous freshman senator to what seemed like the tip of every tongue in Washington -- thanks to the letter he wrote and got 46 fellow Republicans to join, warning the ruling Iranian regime to be wary of negotiating a nuclear deal with President Obama.
But here's a fun fact: Cotton made his big splash before even giving his first speech on the Senate floor.
That occasion came late Monday, when Cotton delivered his "maiden speech," which is typically given after a period of silence and as a statement of principles or objectives rather than a comment on the partisan issue of the day.
Cotton's address has gotten a lot less attention than his Iran letter, and that is not surprising: Where the letter was terse and seemingly calculated to influence the multiparty nuclear negotiations now underway, the half-hour speech was dense, rich in historical references, and calibrated to further establish Cotton as the Republican Party's young leading light on foreign affairs and defense -- positioning him to assume the mantle now worn by elders like John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
"An alarm should be sounding in our ears," Cotton said. "Our enemies, sensing weakness and hence opportunity, have become steadily more aggressive. Our allies, uncertain of our commitment and capability, have begun to conclude that they must look out for themselves, even where it is unhelpful to stability and order. Our military, suffering from years of neglect, has seen its relative strength decline to historic levels."
The speech contained numerous references to Winston Churchill and Cotton compared the current foreign policy moment to the prelude to World War II. He articulated a litany of national security threats, ranging from Iran to North Korea to Russia, but the speech was notable for the hard line it took on a question now threatening to divide Capitol Hill Republicans as they try to write a 2017 budget: Is it more important to control federal spending or strengthen the national defense?
Cotton was clear: America must have "such hegemonic strength that no sane adversary would ever imagine challenging the United States. 'Good enough' is not and will never be good enough." That strength, he said, should come at whatever the necessary costs. While the budget must be slashed, it should not be balanced on the backs of the military.
“Our enemies and allies alike must know that aggressors will pay an unspeakable price for challenging the United States," Cotton said. "The best way to impose that price is global military dominance.”
An excerpt from his full speech:
Trying to balance the budget through defense cuts is both counterproductive and impossible. First, the threats we face will eventually catch up with us, as they did on Sept. 11, and we will have no choice but to increase our defense budget. When we do, it will cost more to achieve the same end state of readiness and modernization than it would have without the intervening cuts. This was the lesson we learned in the 1980s after the severe cuts to defense in the 1970s. Second, we need a healthy, growing economy to generate the government revenue necessary to fund our military and balance the budget. In our globalized world, our domestic prosperity depends heavily on the world economy, which, of course, requires stability and order. Who provides that stability and order? The U.S. military.