Having served in the Senate barely 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 actions have alienated him from some 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 this month by authoring a controversial open letter to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The letter condescendingly explained, citing two constitutional provisions, why no deal resulting from the P5+1 nuclear negotiation between 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 [Barack] Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time,” Cotton wrote.
The letter, which was signed by 47 Republican senators, was blasted by Democrats and the political left. They said that a senator, especially one who has been in the Senate for only a few months, had no right to interfere in the traditionally presidential domain of foreign policy and engage foreign leaders. Some of them 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 has shown his colors early, passionately criticizing administration officials who testified before one of the three committees he sits on – and always displaying extremely hawkish foreign policy views that previously were matched only by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and who previously held high level foreign policy positions in the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, is among observers who interpreted the controversy over Cotton’s letter as a promising sign.
“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, and he looks more like a farm-raised high school track athlete than a sitting senator. At 37, he is the Senate’s youngest member. But that 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 – one of the Army’s most decorated divisions – and receiving a bronze star for his service before he was honorably discharged.
After serving a single term in the House of Representatives, Cotton took advantage of last year’s favorable GOP headwind, and he took on incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor (D) in November.
Pryor sensed his weakness as a Democrat in a state quickly turning to favor Republicans and enlisted the help of a former Arkansas governor – former President Bill Clinton – in campaigning.
The face-off between Cotton and Pryor became one of the hottest contests in the country. Both candidates raised and spent astronomical sums of cash, which came mostly through large donors from outside 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 despite cash and Clinton, he lost.
Cotton’s fundraising was likewise impressive: He raised and spent about $13.9 million. His list of donors included political superstars like Weekly Standard editor-in-chief and political pundit Bill Kristol; mega-donor Sheldon Adelson; hedge fund manager Paul Singer; President George W. and Laura Bush; David and Charles Koch – better known collectively as the Koch Brothers; and Abrams.
All of these donors could be found contributing to the GOP presidential candidates in a general election, but they don’t necessarily align on down-ballot races such as those for Senate and House.
Even the Koch brothers sometimes disagree, with David preferring more traditional Republican candidates and Charles tending to side with more libertarian ones.
Cotton managed to bridge the gap between foreign policy-minded Republicans and fiscal conservatives. That made him a rare candidate who appealed to both neoconservatives and paleoconservatives – those who espouse an ideology of 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.
He doesn’t quite fit the mold of a neoconservative either. Abrams said believes these battles and terms are from the 1980s and 90s, and they no longer apply.
“I think 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,” Abrams said.
In attempting to explain Cotton’s line of thought on foreign policy, Abrams referred to political scientist, Bard College and Yale University professor Walter Russell Mead, who once described a lingering “Jacksonian influence on American foreign policy,” which is named for early 19th century President Andrew Jackson.
Abrams defined Jacksonians, who are often from places like Arkansas, as people “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.”
Negative political reaction caused by Cotton’s letter to Khamenei had led some Republican senators – even some who signed the letter – to back down, and left others forced to explain their positions. This was particularly true for Republican senators in blue states who as a result of their support for the letter, are taking heat from angry constituents.
The fear among Republicans and their staffs was that the partisan, open attack on the authority of Obama would steer Democrats away from supporting two pieces of legislation on Iran: the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act, which calls for additional sanctions if a deal is not reached, and the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which calls for the president to send the final deal to Congress for approval. The president has vowed to veto both.
Key supporters of these bills and their staff had been working to build a bipartisan coalition of 67 senators — to override a guaranteed presidential veto. Most now feel that Cotton’s unilateral action jeopardized this coalition.
Some staff members of senators who signed onto Cotton’s letter, many of whom focus specifically on the issues of foreign policy and Iran, also felt slighted by the way the signatures were collected. Staff members are responsible for providing more detailed assessments to guide lawmakers’ decisions, so they are generally part of the evaluation that goes into lawmakers’ actions.
Cotton went directly to his colleagues by circulating the letter for signatures at the senators’ weekly conference lunch or 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, especially 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.”
The effect the letter will have on policy remains unknown. But there is a feeling among some Republican staffers that Cotton’s actions have served 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, who met Cotton at the wedding of Kristol’s son, who like Cotton is also a veteran, said that the letter did not change his opinion of the freshman senator.
Abrams said he disagreed with Secretary of State John Kerry’s opinion that it was unprecedented.
“I think people are missing… that this was not a letter, it was an open letter, and there’s a big difference,” 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.”