How to Speak Cottonese: The New Hawk in Washington

The gods destroy those they call promising.  In this case, there may well be a firming agenda from various circles of praise that seem to be haloing the new, hip shooting Arkansas Senator.  Much of this admiration stems from the simplicity of it all – Tom Cotton, for one, doesn’t want the implications of international diplomacy to be too troubling for US interests.  For that reason, he has left his diplomacy text books at home.  Embrace the inner brute, and feel more comfortable with things.

Media outlets are feverish with praise, while the sponsors are getting excited about how far Senator Tom Cotton will go. Cotton has the military side of the aisle on his team, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Press briefings note his Harvard education, though Ivy-league certifications are no guarantees against flailing, and failure, on the big stage.  His dedication page at the university speaks about how he “discovered political philosophy as a way of life” at the college, though that discovery hasn’t been too illuminating thus far.

Cotton has admirers in the form of fellow veterans Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.  From the moment he got into the chamber, his direction was clear, being appointed chairman of the Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee.

Cotton is the security establishment’s beamishly keen poster boy for surveillance and the status quo – according to him, the NSA “is a military organization staffed by career officers who act in accordance with the law.”  He is also keen to keep Washington’s costly imperial footprints.  “He unites the factions of the Republican civil war: The establishment loves his background, while the Tea Party love his ideological purity” (The Atlantic, September 17, 2014).

In January, he told CNN about how a new “war on Islamic terror” was needed, with the US army required to “get back on offense all around the world.”  With adolescent enthusiasm, Cotton seemed happy to place the US militarised state at the full disposal of its policing instinct. “The more we bomb, if we’re killing terrorists,” he argued with arithmetic certainty on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “the safer we are.” Cottonese avoids terms such as causation and consequence – we only inflict the good against the bad.

At the Heritage Foundation, Cotton showed how an expensive education can refine, rather than banish, ignorance. The Munich analogy was wheeled out before listeners – be wary of the mullahs in Iran, because they are the next Hitler-front men of a new, terrifying world order.  Each step to enrich uranium is tantamount to a bite of Europe.

Whatever is done, any deal with Tehran is tantamount to appeasement, a philosophy which necessitates permanent war in the name of something distinctly less than peace.    “Upon coming to power, among its [Iran’s] first actions was to invade sovereign American territory – our embassy in Tehran – and hold Americans hostage for over a year, an act of war for which it has never fully answered.”

Cotton is unwilling to answer the Iranian argument as to why the CIA, along with Britain’s M16, were happily molesting Iranian sovereignty when it shoehorned the Shah into his byzantine, paranoid glory in 1953.  Then, Tehran was certainly not in the clutches of the Islamic zealots which are the subject of Cotton’s ire, but a democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq.  In the words of an internal CIA history The Battle for Iran, “The military coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.” But don’t let that get in the way of a strained story laced with Cottonisms.

Cotton shows all the necessary insularity required by the scions of neoconservatism.  He is incapable of seeing policy blunders, having developed, it would seem, an entrenched immunity against argument.  Presumably, like the pro-imperialist historian Niall Ferguson, he feels that troop deployments ought to dig in rather than evacuate after stints of hopeless performances.  Total exits from such theatres as Afghanistan will not be tolerated – build the bases, the outposts and the corporations for the big staying game.

Cotton, in fact, is on record suggesting that US troops should be retained in certain numbers – 10,000 in perpetuity, or at least till circumstances “change”.  (This is Cottonese for “never”.)  He speaks of a perennial need to bolster local forces, which he damns with faint praise.  “While the Afghan National Security Forces have made real gains, they’re not in a place where we can be assured of their long-term stability and success.”  A great success story, then, doomed to failure without Washington’s foreign policy drip-feed.

Outlets such as The National Review see, in Cotton, a fine figure of healthy aggression.  The legal eagle behind various documents exonerating the US from obligations regarding the Geneva Conventions and those covering torture, John Yoo, seemed genuinely excited about Cotton’s Iran letter.  “As a description of American constitutional law, Senator Cotton has it exactly right.”

Little interest, then, in any “primer” about Iranian law on the subject of a nuclear deal with the United States and others associated with the process.  Furthermore, Yoo’s flashing legal credentials on Cotton’s interpretation betrays its own consummate ignorance.  Both erred in their supposedly iron clad constitutional reasoning.

Cotton, for one, fudges the issue on ratification – it is not the Senate that ratifies treaties, but its formal empowering of the president to “proceed with ratification” via a two-thirds vote.  Consent is required, but the president retains the final call. Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush, Jack Goldsmith, could only put down his pen in despair – “in a letter purporting to teach a constitutional lesson, the error is embarrassing.”  With Cotton and company, we are readying ourselves for a whole avalanche of them in due course.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.