Is Tom Cotton’s Inner Realist Struggling to Get Out?

It was just a few lines in an hour-long speech before the conservative Hillsdale College annual Constitution Day dinner, but for a brief, possibly illuminating moment, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sounded like he might be a regular subscriber to The American Conservative. 

After two years of pushing for an expansion in the drone war, staying in Afghanistan indefinitely, engaging in military action in Syria (even if that meant shooting down Russian planes), arguing to keep Gitmo open, and doing everything to maintain current, if not increased budgets for the Military Industrial Complex, the Arkansas Republican sounded like, well, a foreign policy realist, if not the majority of people in America today.

“Government now takes nearly half of every dollar our workers earn and bosses us around in every aspect of life, yet can’t even deliver services well,” Cotton declared to his audience of some 400 conservatives. “Our working class—the ‘forgotten man,’ to use a phrase favored by Ronald Reagan and FDR—has seen its wages stagnate while the four richest counties in America are all within the Washington Beltway. The kids of those forgotten men are the ones who chiefly fight our seemingly endless wars and police our streets, only to come under criticism from the very elite who sleep under the blanket of security they provide” (emphasis added).

There are a few ways to interpret this uncharacteristic blip. If Cotton has truly undergone an epiphany regarding the failed policies and powerful forces (i.e. the National Security Inc.) that have perpetuated these “endless wars” which he heretofore supported, then good for him. If, on the other hand, his reference to “endless wars” was a simple pander to the populist wave that helped to elect Donald Trump in 2016 (he began his remarks to Hillsdale Monday by saying Americans “lost their confidence in our governing class, in both its competence and its intentions”), then too bad.

Then again, there is not much evidence in the Cotton file to suggest this is a guy who has suddenly seen the light. A freshman senator at the age of 37 in 2015, Cotton is one of a small coterie of Iraq-Afghanistan combat veterans on the Hill today. But unlike those who have used their experience inside the wire to temper Uncle Sam’s interventionist impulses, Cotton has emerged as one of the biggest pro-war members of his class, a sort of junior hawk to Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Right out of the gate, he defended the extra-judicial drone killing of Anwar Awlaki in 2011, and even called for more.  “When an American drone unexpectedly brings justice to Anwar al-Awlaki, it is a powerful reminder to all terrorists their safe haven may not be so safe after all,” said Cotton. “Far from restraining the use of drones, then, through unwise and unconstitutional mechanisms, we should continue and probably expand their use in our war against radical Islam.”

About the same time, Cotton was all over the tube calling for one intervention after the next and had already begun his crusade against the Iranian regime, which he likened to Hitler, much like his neoconservative patrons in the Washington establishment.

“We can’t win the war on Islamic terror on defense, we have to win on offense,” Cotton exclaimed on CNN. He told an audience at the Heritage Foundation the day before that the negotiations of the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., and France, plus Germany, which finally led to a deal) was akin to the appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Later, as a guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he emphasized his support for fighting ISIS. “We kill them there before they kill us here, it’s very simple,” he proclaimed. “The more we bomb, if we’re killing terrorists, the safer we are.” When hearing testimony in 2015 about closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center he lambasted the Obama Administration official before him, saying, they “don’t hate us for what we do, they hate us for what we are,” and scoffed at the idea that keeping GITMO open was in essence a terrorist recruiting tool for terrorists.

“The only problem with Guantanamo Bay is that there are too many empty beds,” he charged.

While many military vets develop a healthy skepticism for government, often having seen the corruption, hubris, and limited power to reform first-hand, Cotton has used his bully pulpit to bolster the national security state when it comes under fire. This includes the NSA, playing it up as “full of career military officers who follow the law by targeting foreign terrorists to protect American citizens” when the super-secret agency was called out for spying on Americans under the guise of the War on Terror. He then broke publicly with Sen. Rand Paul and supported extending the more intrusive controversial powers of the Patriot Act.

Cotton was at the forefront of a 2015 letter sent to Iranian leaders designed to thwart the nuclear deal (the effort failed). He also supported sending troops to Syria and argued that the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Force (AUMF) was enough to justify it but could also be used to shoot down Russian planes in Syria if necessary. He supports Trump’s plan to stay in Afghanistan, and has promised to end sequestration in order to increase the defense budget beyond its ginormous $600 billion annual tab. There is where your “nearly half” to the taxman is going.

All of this sounds eerily like a game plan for those “endless wars” Cotton appears to lament in his Hillsdale speech. He may have meant that America’s enemies are forcing the U.S. into this endless cycle of conflict, in which case his statement would be more in line with his record. Or, he might be reading the tea leaves—that the only people truly pushing for war are those benefiting from it inside the Beltway.

In that case, welcome to club.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.

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