Tom Cotton, Soldier in Bill Kristol’s Proxy War Against Evil

This article first appeared on nonzero.org and is republished with the author’s permission.

Among the things I dislike about each fresh burst of American warmaking is seeing its cheerleaders bask in the spotlight. Consider Senator Tom Cotton, who has been unsettlingly visible since the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani.

Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, is a protégé of famous neoconservative Bill Kristol, who played a big role in getting the US to invade Iraq and has since championed various other forms of American belligerence, many of them aimed at Iran. Cotton got elected to the Senate with the help of a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, subsequently hired Kristol’s son Joseph as his legislative director, and has in various other ways settled into a cozy symbiosis with Kristol’s network. The Washington Free Beacon—whose founding editor is Matthew Continetti, Kristol’s son-in-law—highlights Cotton’s exploits so regularly that any given page of its Tom Cotton archives (say, this year’s July-September page) will feature an array of headlines that speak to the vast range of the senator’s expertise. (August 26: “Cotton: Greenland Purchase Would Secure ‘Vital Strategic Interests’.”)

You may, like me, find Cotton hard to take, but there’s virtue in persevering and paying attention to his recent doings. They nicely illustrate some key components of America’s war-starting and war-sustaining machinery—the powerfully primitive worldview that drives it, the dubious logic employed to justify it, and the sleazy tactics that are sometimes used to silence its critics.

Exhibits A and B, from the past 10 days: (1) A New York Times op-ed Cotton wrote, defending the killing of Suleimani; (2) a letter that he and two other senators sent to Trump’s attorney general, requesting an investigation into a group that criticized the killing of Suleimani.

1. Cotton’s New York Times op-ed. This piece is notable for, among other things, employing a rhetorical device that has impeded human understanding since the dawn of civilization. You might call it the “falsely implied comparison.”

In the course of casting various Democrats’ reactions to the assassination in a negative light, Cotton wrote in the Times that “Senator Bernie Sanders likened America’s killing of a terrorist on the battlefield to Vladimir Putin’s assassination of Russian political dissidents.”

Yes, I guess you could say Sanders did that. You could also say that if I note that both Tom Cotton and Joseph McCarthy have a capital C in their last name, I have “likened Tom Cotton to Joseph McCarthy.” But I haven’t done so in the way that’s being implied. (To see me actually do so in the way that’s being implied, skip to “2. Cotton’s attack on the National Iranian-American Council.”)

What Sanders said was that in assassinating a foreign military leader, we were setting a dangerous precedent, one that could be used by foreign adversaries to legitimize various assassinations of their own. He said, “And, you unleash—then, if China does that, you know, if Russia does that, you know, Russia has been implicated under Putin with assassinating dissidents.”

If you somehow got through that sentence thinking Cotton was being honest in suggesting that Sanders considers Suleimani no worse than Russian dissidents, I would direct you to the Sanders sentence that preceded it: “This guy, you know, was, as bad as he was, an official of the Iranian government.”

This particular instance of (perhaps unconscious) Cotton dishonesty may seem unexceptional—and certainly the falsely implied comparison is a common device, used by some of the world’s finest propagandists. But is it too much to hope for better from the people we honor with a seat in the Senate?

Oh it is? OK, then how about this as a reason to dwell on Cotton’s cheap rhetorical trick: The point Sanders was making is a refreshing rarity in the commentary about the killing of Suleimani, and stands in particular contrast to commentary from Iran hawks. Sanders was assessing the consequences of the assassination not just in a regional and near-term sense but in a global and long-term sense. And when you do that, odes to assassination such as the one Cotton wrote for the New York Times get harder to write.

From this more encompassing perspective, some good questions about the killing of Suleimani arise. Will the administration’s highly dubious rationale for the strike—we knew attacks were “imminent” even though we didn’t know when they would occur, we knew the attacks would hit four American embassies even though, come to think of it, we actually didn’t, so never mind—make it harder to credibly criticize nefarious foreign leaders for their own momentous lies? And what about the fact that, absent good evidence of imminence, the assassination seems to violate international law? Doesn’t that make it harder to criticize other countries when they do things like, say, seize Crimea by force? Also: might increasing the amount of grassroots hatred of America in both Iran and Iraq eventually come back to haunt us, the way hatred of America in the Middle East has tended to do in recent years?

You can see why Cotton would want to short-circuit such questions. In the absence of such long-term considerations, it’s easier for people like him to rest their defense of the assassination on the fact that Iran didn’t, as some feared, escalate the conflict, but chose a measured military response that was (for now, at least) destructive but non-lethal. “Iran’s anemic response,” Cotton writes, indicates that “the Suleimani strike has already restored deterrence.” Which didn’t surprise Cotton, because Iran “has been deterred in the past.”

I agree that Iran is deterrable—I’ve long emphasized that the Iranian regime is a rational actor. What I want to know is how Cotton can believe that and still believe, as he has said, that if Iran had nuclear weapons it might well use them on the United States or Israel, which of course would be suicidal.

I’d ask the same question of the many other Iran hawks who alternate between warning about fervently apocalyptic Iranian “mullahs” and assuring us that Iran responds rationally to force. If the mullahs are actually rational and not suicidal, then why is keeping them from getting a nuclear weapon worth a war? (Especially given that it would take a full-on ground invasion and subsequent occupation to deal more than a temporary setback to any nuclear weapons program.)

And then there’s the question of why, if keeping Iran from getting a nuke really is the goal (as opposed to, say, sanctions-induced or war-induced regime change), Cotton et. al. encouraged and then celebrated Trump’s abandoning a deal that was manifestly keeping Iran from getting a nuke? But I digress…

2. Cotton’s attack on the National Iranian-American Council. This week Senators Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Mike Braun sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr requesting an investigation of “potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act” by the National Iranian-American Council, a non-profit that supported the Iran nuclear deal and opposed Trump’s abandonment of it as well as most of Trump’s Iran policies since then, including the Suleimani assassination.

To violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act, you would have to advocate in support of a foreign power and do so “at the order, request, or under the direction or control” of the foreign power (and fail to register as a foreign agent). Remarkably, the letter sent to Barr cited not the slightest bit of actual evidence that NIAC has such a relationship with the Iranian government.

This is classic McCarthyism: alleging or insinuating, on the basis of no good evidence, that Americans whose political views you dislike are acting in the service of a foreign power. And, as if to sharpen the comparison between himself and Joseph McCarthy, Cotton is asking for an actual government investigation!

The Free Beacon—whose ever-resourceful reporting team somehow got an advance copy of Cotton’s letter—put its story about the letter under this headline: “Congress Seeks Investigation Into Pro-Iran Lobby Group Tied to Tehran Regime.” Which would be more-or-less accurate if it weren’t for the fact that “Congress” didn’t seek the investigation and NIAC hasn’t been shown to have ties to the Tehran Regime. And, by the way, NIAC has repeatedly criticized Iran’s human rights policies, something a regime puppet presumably wouldn’t do.

In launching this smear, Cotton was using a weapon with which his friend Bill Kristol is familiar. To take one example: In 2010, a New York imam announced plans to build a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center in hopes of fostering interfaith understanding. The neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard—which Kristol had co-founded and of which he was then editor-in-chief—joined the far-right push to derail this “ground zero mosque,” publishing an article that, as I showed in a New York Times piece at the time, smeared the imam with the McCarthyite tactic of guilt by association.

By the time of the mosque derailing, Cotton and Kristol had been in conversation for years, building what Kristol has called “a bond beyond pure policy.” When, two years later, Cotton got elected to the House of Representatives, Kristol showered so much good press on his friend that Slate referred to the freshman congressman as “Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Weekly Standard).”

After a single term, it was on to the Senate, with help not just from Kristol but from Republican mega-donor Paul Singer (also a big funder of The Free Beacon) and a PAC that drew on pro-Israel donors and was run by John Bolton. In his current Senate race, Cotton, having now shown his commitment to huge Pentagon budgets, is getting healthy sums from the armaments industry.

Cotton embodies familiar themes from neocon ideology. He’s very suspicious of Russia, China, and Iran, very supportive of Israel. (“Businesses do not have a constitutional right to discriminate against the Jewish State,” he said in defending an Arkansas law that had compelled a newspaper to either certify that it didn’t support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement or quit getting ad revenue from public entities.) And he shares the moralistic, even Manichaean, view of the world that allows so many neocons to apply the label “evil” to other people with such confidence.

But Cotton seems more intense than the average neocon. An amendment he offered to a House bill would have punished with up to 20 years in prison not only people who violate Iran sanctions but also their relatives— “parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids,” as Cotton put it. This punishment of kin would happen “automatically,” he said. To be sure, “I sympathize with their plight if they are harmless, innocent civilians in Iran.” But, “I doubt that that is often the case.”

In the Senate, Cotton’s focus on Iran remained sharp. He said John Kerry “acted like Pontius Pilate” in the way he negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. Cotton spearheaded a last-minute Republican effort to derail the deal and, having failed, set his sights on the deal’s destruction—a mission that, with the help of Donald Trump, was accomplished.

One thing people tend to do—and the more Manichaean they are, the more they do it—is see their adversaries as more monolithic than the facts may warrant. In the case of Iran, this can mean using the word “proxy” without nuance—assuming that every bad thing any of Iran’s proxies do is done at Iran’s direction. In truth, proxies—whether Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, or for that matter the various groups America and its allies armed in Syria—have their own agendas, which typically overlap significantly with their sponsors’ agendas, but not entirely. In return for material support, they’ll take direction from their sponsors regularly, but not always—and sometimes they’ll do things on their own initiative. Moreover, when they do comply with directions, they’re often doing things they’d want to do anyway. Proxies are rarely mere puppets.

Similarly, it would be a mistake to see Cotton as Kristol’s puppet. Though others have, like me, called Kristol Cotton’s mentor, the two were no doubt pretty simpatico by the time they met. Cotton had been a nerdy, driven Arkansas farm boy who, though raised by Democratic parents, was already conservative when he entered Harvard. There he, like Kristol, studied under conservative political philosopher Harvey Mansfield, who had been deeply influenced by philosopher and neoconservative icon Leo Strauss. Cotton went to Harvard Law School, then joined the army and served in Iraq. He presumably returned, like many American soldiers, with a hostility toward Iranian proxies in Iraq and toward their sponsor.

And I’d guess the hostility was strong enough to need no further encouragement from Bill Kristol. Kristol doesn’t create Tom Cottons. He just works to increase the chances that people with Cotton’s basic worldview will acquire power. Some of these efforts have been famous failures (Sarah Palin for VP!). But Cotton is an example of a very consequential success.

This post first appeared on nonzero.org and is republished with the author’s permission.

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