Everything You Need to Know About Tom Cotton, the Man Behind the GOP's Insane Letter to Iran

This weekend, freshman Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas spearheaded a completely innocent effort to let Iran know that, basically, the Senate GOP would fight any nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic even after it was signed. That, at least, was the implicit threat in the open letter Cotton wrote; the explicit one was that any future president could easily undo such an accord.

Except Cotton, a Harvard-educated lawyer, got his US Constitution wrong (an “embarrassing” error, wrote one Harvard law professor and former George W. Bush administration lawyer) and failed to even mention that his threat to withdraw from an agreement would be a violation of international law—something Iran’s foreign minister, in an epic bit of trolling, brought to his attention.

None of that, though, stopped forty-six other GOP senators from signing onto the letter—including the party’s full leadership slate in the upper chamber! (Notably, Foreign Relations chair Bob Corker of Tennessee, who co-authored the bill to get congressional say-so on a deal, stayed off.) So who is this freshman senator leading his party around by the nose with factually challenged and bellicose pronouncements?

At first blush, Cotton is quite an accomplished figure. Born in Arkansas in 1977, Cotton went to Harvard, where he wrote for the school paper and joined the Republican Club, before graduating from the law school there. Then he joined the army and became an officer, deploying to Iraq in 2006 and earning decorations along the way.

His army service was no doubt a noble pursuit, but it was during this time that Cotton’s particular brand of politics began to shine through a little bit. From Iraq, Cotton published an open letter—apparently he’s a fan of the format—in the right-wing blog Power Line calling for two journalists and the then–executive editor of The New York Times to be jailed and prosecuted for publishing an investigative piece about how the United States tracks terrorist finances. (Jim Lobe pointed out yesterday that those who would defend Cotton’s latest open letter to the Iranians on free-speech grounds may want to check this episode out first.)

The Power Line item made a big splash, and, according to The Atlantic, he struck up a correspondence with neocon don Bill Kristol. When Cotton returned for a stateside army posting, the pair "met frequently over drinks and dinner at Washington’s downtown Mayflower Hotel." Again to his credit, Cotton volunteered for another combat tour, this time in Afghanistan, eventually attaining the rank of captain. Then Cotton returned stateside again as a civilian and clerked for a judge.

When Cotton entered politics in 2012, winning a House seat representing his native Arkansas, things again started to turn a little bit hawkish, then a little bit unreasonable. (The Atlantic characterized his domestic record in the House as “conservative absolutism,” as he voted, for instance, against emergency disaster relief.)

The hawkishness was, initially, pro-forma: in an interview after the election but before taking his seat, Cotton told the neoconservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, “There are evil people in the world who would do evil things.” He added that Iran was gaining influence and “It’s important to remind the American people why we’re still engaged [militarily].” Rubin, who has herself advocated attacking Iran for years, lauded Cotton as a potential ideological replacement for the Democratic hawk Joseph Lieberman.

Once in the House, Cotton’s anti-Iran advocacy showed a mean streak. When, in 2013, a new Iran sanctions bill came before the lower chamber, Cotton introduced an amendment that would “automatically” punish family members of sanctions violators. “There would be no investigation,” Cotton explained during the mark-up. “It’d be very hard to demonstrate and investigate to conclusive proof.” Cotton wanted to punish innocent people; he called it “corruption of blood,” and extended the category to include “parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids.”

After some debate, Cotton withdrew the amendment. But it had earned him some attention among Iran hawks. Kristol, the neocon star-maker and founder of The Weekly Standard, which had pushed Cotton’s political career from the get-go, decided to put his money where his mouth is. When Cotton ran for a Senate seat last year, Kristol’s far-right pressure group, the Emergency Committee For Israel, threw almost a million dollars into his race.

Cotton won, and Kristol and company immediately started getting their money’s worth. In December, at a forum hosted by Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative (another pressure group modeled on the Project For a New American Century that pushed the Iraq War), Cotton said that the United States should allow the sale to Israel of the bombers and advanced bombs it would need to make an attack on Iran more feasible. In February, at the CPAC summit, he reportedly called for not just regime change in Tehran, but "replacement with a pro-Western regime." The New Republic’s David Ramsey remarked that, on almost any foreign policy issue, “Cotton can be found at the hawkish outer edge of the debate.”

Most Iran hawks in Congress pushing sanctions measure that would effectively end nuclear talks insist they’re only trying to strengthen President Obama’s hand in negotiations. But Cotton, to his credit, has been much more blunt about his Bill Kristol–esque aims: to end talks and foreclose any possibility of a deal. In January, Cotton told a Heritage Foundation conference (my emphasis):

The United States must cease all appeasement, conciliation and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations. Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But, the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.

This week, Cotton launched his letter, earning forceful pushback from Democrats and hesitant criticisms from those Republicans not foolish enough to sign on. That hasn’t stopped Cotton from using Twitter to promote all the deeply flawed defenses of the letter he’s been making on cable news networks—and Bill Kristol is damned pleased. And the Intercept’s Lee Fang reported today that Cotton will appear tomorrow at an event hosted by a defense industry lobbying association—an audience sure to be receptive to his über-hawkishness, a boon to their bottom lines

Despite the myriad criticisms, it seems Tom Cotton is exactly where he wants to be.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include Cotton's initial contacts with Bill Kristol and his February call for regime change in Iran.

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