The Wall Street Journal interview with Sen. Tom Cotton was a useful reminder that he is every bit as fanatical on foreign policy as he seems to be:
When it comes to America’s present challenges—from Iran to North Korea, China to Russia, Syria to Ukraine—Mr. Cotton, a conservative Republican, is squarely on Team [Teddy] Roosevelt. “There is always a military option,” he says. “That is the case everywhere in the world.”
There might technically be a “military option” in every case, but only madmen would always prefer that option over the alternatives. One of the many problems with Cotton’s worldview is that he favors military action when none is needed and other responses would either be more effective or less costly or both. The only military intervention he can bring himself to criticize is the Libyan war, and then only because it gives him a chance to score points on Obama for not intervening more aggressively in Syria:
President Obama, Mr. Cotton argues, “probably did the wrong thing” in helping to oust Moammar Gadhafi while leaving Bashar Assad alone. If the U.S. had intervened in Syria and not Libya, “we might have had a happier end in both.”
Even when Cotton allows for the possibility that the Libyan war did more harm than good, he can’t seem to fathom that a more aggressive intervention in Syria would have been far more destructive and costly. He also doesn’t seem to understand that a deeper intervention in Syria would have been extremely unpopular with the very people he claims to be representing. He pretends to speak for “Jacksonian Americans” unhappy with “plainly unwise” interventions, but in the next breath complains that the U.S. wasn’t more deeply entangled in Syria in a civil war that most Americans have never wanted to be involved in at all. The Libyan war was destructive and “plainly unwise,” as my colleague Matt Purple reminded us earlier this week, but what Cotton is talking about would have been and still would be an open-ended war that risks conflict with Russia and Iran. Cotton would trade one disaster for a much larger one and consider it a shrewd bargain.
If there’s one thing that links many of Cotton’s positions together, it is hostility to Iran. That would account for his insistence that the U.S. should have intervened against Assad, and it explains his obsessive focus on sabotaging the nuclear deal. He is also remarkably dismissive of the costs of attacking Iran:
“Any military action against Iran,” he says, “would look more like Operation Desert Fox from Iraq in December of 1998 or Operation El Dorado Canyon in Libya in 1986.” Those were limited bombing campaigns designed to punish misbehaving regimes. Mr. Cotton insists—controversially—that such an attack on Iran would not require a sustained military commitment: “It would be primarily a naval and air attack against its nuclear infrastructure.”
Cotton is a veteran of the Iraq war, so it is a bit strange that he seems so confident that the extent of a foreign war would be limited to what the U.S. intends to do while ignoring what the other side might do in response. As Harry Kazianis pointed out in a recent article, attacking Iran would not be as easy or cheap as the brief air campaigns that Cotton is talking about. A “naval and air attack against its nuclear infrastructure” could quickly escalate into a fight with more American casualties than we have seen in a long time. Unlike other adversaries that the U.S. has periodically bombed since the end of the Cold War, Iran has the capability to fight back and inflict serious losses. Every advocate of a war of choice always tells us that it will be brief, easy, and cheap, and events always prove them wrong.
What makes Cotton’s warmongering all the more worrisome is that the military action he favors taking is always unnecessary. There is no U.S. security interest or commitment that requires intervention in Syria or the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and there is no legal justification for U.S. military action against the Syrian and Iranian governments. Like other hard-liners, Cotton has a vastly exaggerated definition of American interests, blows foreign threats out of proportion, and has no problem with starting illegal wars. Cotton is offering “Jacksonian America” a future filled with an unending series of unnecessary wars whose costs will be far higher than he claims, and if they are wise all Americans will reject him and the fanatical foreign policy he is trying to sell them.