Ask anyone in politics to describe Sen. Tom Cotton’s foreign policy, and the first word you hear is likely to be “hawkish.” Yet despite this well-deserved reputation, the Arkansas Republican has managed to surprise interviewers twice in recent weeks with just how welcoming he is of conflict.
On Sunday’s “Face the Nation,” Cotton followed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who forcefully argued that evidence proves Iran was behind Thursday’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. It should be noted that other countries such as Germany and Japan do not believe that the evidence released so far proves that Iran was behind the attacks. But overconfident predictions about intelligence have never backfired on the United States, aside from that one war about supposed weapons of mass destruction that dragged on for years with hundreds of thousands of deaths. Regardless, when host Margaret Brennan asked whether the president had the authority to strike Iran, Pompeo thankfully dismissed the idea, saying, “I don’t want to get into hypotheticals.”
Cotton took a different view:
“Iran for 40 years has engaged in this kind of attacks, going back to the 1980s. In fact, Ronald Reagan had to re-flag a lot of vessels going through the Persian Gulf and ultimately take military action against Iran in 1988. These unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike.”
Taken aback, Brennan asked, “Are you — you’re comparing the tanker war in the ’80s to now, and saying that that’s the kind of military response you want to see?” Cotton affirmed the comparison and his preferred response. He left out that the U.S. action under Reagan came after several years and hundreds of attacks on tankers by both sides of the Iran-Iraq War. The current situation is far calmer, yet Cotton is champing at the bit for another U.S. strike on a Middle Eastern country.
The other surprise ties into Sunday’s, because it shows us Cotton’s worrying answer to the obvious follow-up question: If Iran isn’t deterred, what next? In May, Cotton appeared on PBS’s “Firing Line,” where host Margaret Hoover asked him, “Could we win a war with Iran?” Cotton answered “yes” with a speed that seemed to surprise Hoover: “That didn’t take you a second,” she replied. And it was here that things got alarming: “Two strikes,” said Cotton, “the first strike and the last strike,” would be enough to win.
This is, to put it mildly, delusional. Cotton, who served in Iraq, surely knows that tens of thousands of troops were insufficient to “win” that war. Iran is more than three times larger than and about twice as populous as Iraq. Even the military plans ordered up by hard-liners such as national security adviser John Bolton envision as many as 120,000 troops deployed to the region. Nothing in U.S. history suggests that “two strikes” would be enough or that any military intervention in the region would be anything other than a foolish return to a quagmire. Oddly, even Cotton has admitted several times, including on Sunday, that the most recent major U.S. intervention in Libya was unwise. Then again, he has said the United States should have replaced that intervention with one in Syria — a perfect balance of remaining thoroughly pro-intervention without endorsing a Democrat-initiated policy.
Iran policy is a rare instance where the president — though he has certainly helped create the current crisis — is not among the most irresponsible people influencing his administration’s policy. Even President Trump, who believes that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is his friend, surely is smart enough to know that another Mideast war would be a bad idea.
But Trump faces plenty of pressure to remain as antagonistic as possible toward Iran from Republicans both inside and outside the White House — not to mention countries such as Saudi Arabia that would gain from a U.S. conflict with Iran. In a better timeline, younger Republican politicians, having internalized the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention many other U.S. interventions overseas, would be encouraging the president’s caution. Instead, we are stuck with Cotton and other young Republican senators such as Ben Sasse, Neb., who are all too happy with bellicosity toward Iran. So much for a country learning from its mistakes.
James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.