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Tom Cotton Has Been Waiting Years for This

The wunderkind Arkansas senator has been a national security hawk for decades. In China, he’s found his grandest foe yet.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., arrives in the Capitol for the Senate Republicans lunch on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

A long time agoduring the 2010sa young, Harvard-educated veteran from the Deep South crossed paths with Washington’s most senior Republican intellectual.

His name was Tom Cotton. His mentor’s: Bill Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. 

The duo are said to have struck up a correspondence in the early 2000s, when Cotton was at Harvard Law. Kristol was at the height of his powers; Cotton was just amassing his. As revealed in Molly Ball’s definitive profile, ten years later, they began meeting in person, at the District’s Mayflower hotel. The venue at Connecticut and K, where John F. Kennedy had an apartment and John Bolton sat through his exit interviewmatched the mood, and the anxiety, of the Republican Party. Lavish, no doubt, but perhaps also past its prime. 

By his early thirties, Cotton’s Stakhanovite discipline had yielded a dazzling array of accomplishments. Double Harvard (undergrad and law), protégé of the influential West Coast Straussians at the Claremont Institute, associate at the conservative Gibson & Dunn law firm followed by a stint for Republican superlawyer Charles J. Cooper, service as an Army infantry officer with a Bronze Star to boot, and for fun, a dabble in blogging for the not-so-underground Power Line and a lucrative victory lap at McKinsey.

When, more than two decades later, I completed the same fellowship in Southern California as the now-senator, Charles J. Kesslereminence grise of the Claremonstersreferred to the young man in a hurry like a son. He’s been feted as a future president for years. But after the eventful Naughties, when Cotton had returned from tours in the devastated nations of Afghanistan and Iraq, he came home to another such country: the United States of America. And he did so as a prodigy of the party responsible. 

Cotton saw real action in the Middle East. To his credit, he gave the Heisman to offers to commission as a JAG, electing instead to serve in the infantry. This instinct had also driven him to cut loose from graduate studies at Claremont, as he sagely assessed that academic life was too “sedentary.” Later, he’d have to hold onto his seat, as he helped lead combat units in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, the years this country’s nightmare in Mesopotamia reached its morbid climax. Afterwards, he deployed to Afghanistan just as the “good war” there was falling apart.

Still, by the late aughts, if Cotton exited hell, a political career was a done deal. And as anyone who has followed Cotton can attest, facts do care about his feelings. 

Despite the costs, Cotton’s long-held commitment to the mission — an indefinite military presence in the Middle East — remains ironclad. It’s helped garner him a cult following among the conservative Washington elite as well as those simpatico in the military establishment. The National Defense PAC, for instance, backed his 2014 Senate bid “with great pride,” extolling “his firsthand knowledge of the effects of America’s policies in the Middle East.” And, as Ball pointed out, National Review’s published a six-part(!) profile of the man before he was even sworn into Congress. 

Today, Sen. Cotton advocates a still-larger Middle Eastern footprint for the U.S: one the American public has long lost the stomach for. “Tough sanctions are a first step toward rolling back Iran’s campaign of terror,” Cotton said after President Trump kiboshed Obama’s non-treaty in 2018, “but it won’t be the last.” 

Cotton is thus a worthy successor to Karl Rove, who hand-waived card-carrying members of what he called “the reality-based community.” The United States Rove described, perhaps apocryphally,  (“we’re an empire now…history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do”) fits Cotton to a ‘T’.

But unlike Rove, Cotton wants to be the man in the arena. One of the odder things about Rove has been his infatuation with the presidency of William McKinley; in McKinley’s fixer Mark Hanna, Rove seems to perceive a noble predecessor. But Cotton has gone back further for historical inspiration. Ball uncovered his university thesis, which focuses on The Federalist Papers: “Ambition characterizes and distinguishes national officeholders from other kinds of human beings,” Cotton wrote, because “inflammatory passion and selfish interest characterizes most men, whereas ambition characterizes men who pursue and hold national office. Such men rise from the people through a process of self-selection since politics is a dirty business that discourages all but the most ambitious.” 

It is perhaps significant that Cotton was paraphrasing “Publius,” who is widely thought to have been Alexander Hamiltonthat other ambitious American born outside aristocracy who nonetheless came to champion it. 

***

In Cotton’s last year of active duty, 2008-2009, the Republican nominee for president — Sen. John McCain — infamously opined that the United States might need to stay in Iraq for one hundred years. McCain was popular on the liberal talk show circuit, such as with the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. But McCain’s acclaim — borne mostly from a legendary military career, an iconic 2000 profile by hipster legend David Foster Wallace, and crucially, his antagonism toward the Bush administration — obscured the fact that McCain tended to needle Bush because he viewed the administration as not hawkish enough. 

It was in this spirit that Cotton, like McCain, had picked up the bayonet even as a dispirited Bush was laying it down. It was less known then than it is now, but Bush, behind the scenes, had effectively benched a fanatical vice president and begun to pursue a more pragmatic approach to Iran. But after a New York Times profile of dubious U.S. intelligence practices in Iraq, Cotton wrote a letter to the editor. “Congratulations on disclosing our government’s highly classified anti-terrorist-financing program (June 23),” the future senator typed. “I apologize for not writing sooner. But I am a lieutenant in the United States Army and I spent the last four days patrolling one of the more dangerous areas in Iraq.” He went on to detail the slaying of a man in his company, with the implication that the Times’ reporting could augur more such carnage. The Times didn’t print it, but Power Line did, and a star was born.

***

Even though the 2010 Tea Party wave ushered into power foreign policy realists like Rand Paul —  then just the son of rock star former presidential candidate Ron Paul — the GOP’s departure from War on Terror orthodoxy was far from a fait accompli

True, the eventual Republican hope for the White House in 2012, Mitt Romney, kept his distance from former President Bush. “43” gave no address to the Republican National Convention and only curtly acknowledged while traveling in an elevator: “I’m for Mitt Romney.” But Romney’s foreign policy team was quietly a rogue’s gallery. There was Eliot Cohen, the neocon dean. Present, too, was Cofer Black, an opaque former intelligence official whom journalist Eli Lake approvingly called Romney’s “trusted envoy to the dark side.” 

And there was Bolton. There was Max Boot, who has now, of course, left the party in a tizzy. The preposterous Walid Phares made an appearance. And Michael Hayden, the pioneer of what would later by revealed to be the National Security Agency’s crimes against Americans, made an encore on the staff of an emerging Romney administration. Romney’s image was that of a foreign policy moderate. 

Romney’s final, third debate with President Obama — on foreign policy — was widely reviewed as their least contentious. But behind the scenes, those who knew better, knew better. Perhaps closest to Romney’s ear was the flashy flak Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and America’s answer to Baghdad Bob. 

But in 2012, Cotton, at last, found his opening. The inevitable became the imminent. Cotton ran to replace the nationally invisible Mike Ross in Arkansas’ fourth district and give a state accustomed to the Clintons and the Huckabees a new celebrity. Nationally, the Republican establishment, to the bitter end, expected Romney to win. Perhaps Cotton wouldn’t even serve out the term, and become a young gun in the cabinet. At the very least, he’d have the ear of an etch-a-sketch president many hoped would be a new Reagan.

***

Of course, Romney got spanked. 

In a shell-shocking shellacking, the man who later vote to remove a Republican president, failed to become one himself. The obituaries and forecast for the future painted an  image of the Republican Party. The GOP was hypnagogic, perhaps a decade away from the White House, if not a decade from extinction. 

Looking at Cotton, it might have seemed like a war hero had married a corpse bride. Cotton, I know reliably, was weighing a 2016 presidential bid, but was talked out of it in the end. If the GOP had any future, especially an immediate one, he wasn’t going to be at the helm. It might lay with a candidate who would help the party capture a new demographic, like Marco Rubio. Or maybe the base would entertain someone ready to turn party orthodoxy on its head, like Sen. Paul. On the other hand, maybe Republicans needed a nationally-known brand, like Bush. And it would be really killer if it nominated, a brash, socially moderate, logorrheic, telephilic, tri-state tough guy like Governor Chris Christie. 

It all happened. 

For Mr. Kristol, Cotton’s old mentor, Donald Trump’s ascension was as an abattoir. Kristol would go on to ringlead the “NeverTrump” movement, while being bear-baited by the future president: 

“A guy, nobody ever heard of this guy. I shouldn’t even do this. Because that builds up his name. But he’s a real lightweight. His name is Bill Kristol,” Trump told a rally in 2016. “From day one, this poor guy. … Why do you keep putting a guy on television who’s been proven to be wrong for so many years? First of all, he wants the WAR IN IRAQ! All the guy wants to do is kill people and go to war. Even though it’s not working, although he doesn’t know that, because he’s not smart enough.”

It was the moment the old pair’s fortunes had truly flipped. Cotton could join Kristol in temporary, perhaps permanent irrelevance, or he could follow his party into the future. To Kristol’s assured devastation, the ex-soldier offered a hedged, but clear endorsement of the next commander-in-chief. Unlike other rising stars, like Marco Rubio, who awkwardly appeared by video, and Ted Cruz, who reported he’d temporarily developed a conscience, Cotton backed Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention without pitching a fit.

***

Tom Cotton believes in hierarchy. And Tom Cotton believes in the rules. 

Unlike President Trump, his personal life is short on showgirls, showboating, surly ex-wives and sordid anecdotes. Those who have worked for Cotton call him “the boss,” unusually formal for in Boomerized Washington where aides often call senators by their first names. His authoritarian streak goes back a ways: in college, he tried to ban cigarettes, and took a stance against the internet, which offered “too many temptations,” and didn’t need a place in classrooms or libraries.

In 2014, he married a lawyer he met the previous year who had previously worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. He values omerta, even within the family, reportedly agreeing with his wife on a (perhaps laudable) ban on arguments in front of the children. It’s also rumored that his wife Anna, who he met closer to forty than thirty, is his first-ever serious, romantic relationship. For many, this makes Cotton eternally bizarre. It’s perhaps needn’t be belabored that Cotton is an ambitious, six-foot five, double Harvard graduate and combat veteran. 

It’s said that every senator sees her reflection and sees a president. But Tom Cotton is assuredly a multi-dimensional talent. His fun-house mirror long showed a senator who saw the White House. And if Cotton does mystery, he paradoxically doesn’t do ambiguity.  Tom Cotton believes in American power, if not his own. Scribblers have waited centuries for a Southern senator named “Cotton.” His proposed, unambiguously-named FORCE act, as outlined by the Wall Street Journal, is true to form. 

As WSJ’s Gerry Seib explained, Cotton wants “billions to counteract disruptions to the defense industrial base” caused by the onset of SARS_COVID2, to fund the development of “new sources of components so the U.S. isn’t dependent on single manufacturers,” namely China.  

As with everything Cotton, the FORCE act is a fig leaf for broader ambition. He wants to be “the guy” on China, a useful moniker as Washington and Beijing take their positions in the decades-long contest for, as Janan Ganesh puts it, “mastery of the century.” Cotton will have to court chagrined realists he’s ignored over the years, those like John Mearsheimer at Chicago who view the China challenge as different than America’s misguided escapes of recent years: the very same ones Cotton lent his body and brain. And he’ll have to try to charm — not his strong suit — restrainers who see little military business for the U.S. in Asia. 

A Cotton ascension — especially centered on countering China — raises questions. Is “maximum pressure” on Iran no longer “the preeminent challenge” that many in the administration orbit have insisted it is? How will a ramp-up against Beijing fit into the actions of what is (on policy at least) the most anti-Russian administration since Reagan? Does focusing on China mean a drawdown in peripheral theaters like Syria, Afghanistan and swathes of Africa? If so, what has the country been doing the last generation as it deindustrialized? And if not, how can our heavily-indebted nationpresently afraid to leave the house even hope to compete? Whatever answers he may offer, in one respect, at least, Cotton has finally found his grail: a foreign policy crusade that is actually popular. And as the country enters its third month of house arrest, curbing the power of the Chinese state is a tempting proposal for a crisis borne originally from Communist recklessness. 

Shortly after Steve Bannon left the White House, the ex-chief strategist told me that Cotton, much like the first draft pick in sports, was nearly “perfect” except that he needed to “wring the neocon” out of him. Master tactician that he is, Cotton would almost certainly refuse this label. But unlike other neoconservative fantasies — such as Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador or Dan Crenshaw, the Congressman of “Saturday Night Live” and “Real Time with Bill Maher” notoriety — in Cotton, we may well be looking at a future president. 

It’s time to start paying attention to Tom Cotton. We know Tom Cotton is. 

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Writer at TAC covering national security, the 2020 campaign and the Trump presidency. Previously, he reported for The National Interest, Washington Examiner, U.S. News & World Report and the Spectator. Mills was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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