Senator Tom Cotton is a United States Senator from Arkansas elected in 2014. Senator Cotton serves on the Banking Committee, the Intelligence Committee, and the Armed Services Committee, where he chairs the Air Land Power Subcommittee. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law, he left the law because of the September 11th attacks. He served nearly five years on active duty in the United States Army as an Infantry Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. For his service, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, and Ranger Tab. He previously served one term in the House of Representatives. inFOCUS caught up with Senator Cotton several hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress.
inFocus: Why does the United States need to remain involved abroad, exercising our political clout and military power, to ensure a more secure world? What is the likely scenario if we continue to withdraw?
Tom Cotton: America has to remain the global superpower and remain a leader in the world to protect our interests with our allies and to promote our principles. We have seen in the last six years when America withdraws from the world, the result is not peace and order, but chaos and disorder. Our enemies are on the march, our allies are uncertain and often begin to freelance, and the advances that we have made for many decades in greater freedom, greater prosperity, and greater security for Americans begin to decline.
iF: The Obama Administration and Israel disagree, to put it lightly, on how best to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. Do you see a way the two can formulate a common approach on this issue?
TC: My views on this question are more closely aligned with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s views than they are President Obama’s views. I believe the policy towards Iran’s nuclear program should be simple, complete, unconditional nuclear disarmament with thorough and ongoing inspections. President Obama is willing to stop far short of that, and I will not support any kind of deal with Iran that doesn’t result in that kind of complete and unconditional disarmament. More broadly, though, I think we have to recognize that it’s not just a question of Iran’s nuclear program, but the nature of their regime. They have been exporting the Islamic revolution for 35 years and killing Americans and killing Jews all around the world. And until we have a fundamental regime change in Iran, the United States and Israel and so many of our other allies will not be able to live in peace and security with Iran.
iF: How can the U.S. reassure our allies in the region that we have the political will and means to oppose Iranian hegemony?
TC: Well the first thing we can do is stop negotiating on the terms that President Obama and his senior advisors have laid out. The alternative to a bad deal is not no deal necessarily, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said, but a better deal. We have the leverage, we are the global superpower, Iran is a third-rate power. We shouldn’t be letting them dictate terms to us. If we immediately stop the negotiations on the terms President Obama has laid out, then I believe our allies can begin to take our commitment to their security seriously once again. We could also continue to confront Iran’s regional ambitions, whether it’s increased Shiite militia activities in Iraq or funding the Houthis in Yemen or continuing to support Hezbollah and Hamas. Because again, it goes back to the nature of Iran’s regime, not just their nuclear weapons program.
iF: As Iran gets deeper involved in Iraq, what is the U.S. strategic interest in Iraq today?
TC: The United States has an interest in Iraq being a stable, secure country that is not under the hegemony of Iran, that is not a safe haven for terrorist groups, like the Islamic State, to kill Americans as they have already done or to launch attacks against American interests, allies, or the American homeland. We had largely achieved those goals in 2011 when President Obama disregarded the best military judgment of his commanders and withdrew all of our troops precipitously. Unfortunately, we now face a situation where we may have as many troops in Iraq at the end of President Obama’s tenure as we would have had if he had simply accepted their judgment in 2011. The conditions, though, will obviously be much worse than they were. So whether we’re facing an enemy, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said, that’s called the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic State, we can’t let any of those militant, Islamic enemies, use Iraq as a launching pad for attacks against the United States or our allies or our interests.
iF: How confident are you in the ability of the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and other militias to push back against ISIS? Do you think American ground forces are necessary?
TC: The Kurdish Peshmerga have been largely able to hold the line in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan, but they have not been able to roll back any of the Islamic State’s advances. The Iraqi army’s performance has been decidedly mixed. Last summer, many brigades actually broke and ran from contact. Right now, you have Iranian militias increasingly infiltrating a lot of Iraqi army units. So some Iraqi army units are working, some not so much, but more broadly speaking, again you have Iranian militias beginning to control territory and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, rough equivalent of our CIA and joint special operations command, on the ground, in public, and commanding operations in Tikrit, which is a travesty for every American soldier who fought to win that territory and for every American citizen since Soleimani represents the very worst of a regime that has been our implacable enemy for three decades.
iF: The European military contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition has been pitiful. What can the U.S. do to encourage our allies to participate more? Can Europe reverse its decades-long decline?
TC: As Prime Minister Netanyahu said, no one makes alliances with the weak. Countries seek out the strong and too many countries around the world see America, under Barack Obama, as a weak country that will not stand by our allies and stand up to our enemies. I know for a fact that many countries throughout the Middle East and in Europe are crying out for greater American strength and confidence in the defense of our interest in liberty in their region. However, if America is leading from behind, to quote a senior Obama advisor, then those countries are not going to take the risks or stick their neck out to follow America’s lead. The end result is going to be enemies who are on the advance and allies who are uncertain and freelancing.
iF: Israel is often seen as the canary in the coal mine. What signal does the perceived lack of American support for Israel send to other allies as well as enemies?
TC: When President Obama’s senior advisors say off the record that they have successfully boxed in Prime Minister Netanyahu or they question the courage of a man who served in his country’s elite special operations forces, then of course it sends the wrong signal to all of our allies and our enemies. Now the good thing about today’s Middle East is that much of the Sunni Arab states now accept Israel’s policy goals. There’s a reason why defense spending in the Gulf among Sunni states has increased by almost 50% in recent years. None of those weapon systems seem to be appropriate to confronting Israel. They’re all designed to confront Iran. But, simply because Israel and the Sunni states recognize the threat that an Iranian nuclear power poses to them, doesn’t mean that any of them feel comfortable that the United States is going to confront that threat. In fact, it may be an indication that they fear the United States will not confront it.
iF: What can Congress do to ensure that the U.S.-Israel security relationship remains sound and a strong symbol of the American commitment to the region in general?
TC: There’s no stronger alliance in the world than the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Presidents and Prime Ministers come and go, Congresses and Parliaments come and go. The reason the alliance is so strong is because of the American people’s support for Israel. So the Congress reflects what the American people think. That is why it was so important, first, that we invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to come to speak so he could speak to the American people directly and they needed to hear from him, because no one speaks with greater clarity about the Iranian threat. Second, there are specific legislative actions we can take to stop the President from reaching a bad nuclear deal, which is the most immediate threat that the region faces, that Israel faces, and the greatest threat ultimately that America faces. Like, imposing new sanctions. I would like to see them imposed now. Many of my colleagues would rather wait to let negotiations run their course. We can also require that any deal gets an up or down vote by the Congress. And then finally, we can continue to build the case for greater strength and confidence in the Middle East just like we need all around the world. Our allies are desperate to know that Barack Obama’s America is not America’s future.
iF: Looking across the region, Libya is an utter disaster on nearly every level. What are U.S. interests in Libya and what should our objectives be?
TC: President Obama should not have undertaken airstrikes in Libya if he was not committed to victory, certainly not if he was going to “lead from behind” which is the original source of that quotation. Libya is now largely engulfed in civil war and, as we saw recently, the Islamic State clearly has operatives on the ground there where they beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians. The most immediate thing we could do is be more supportive of Egypt under President el-Sisi, who is counteracting the Islamic State, at least, in eastern Libya. We could continue to provide more intelligence and military-to-military support and just stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, which this President has not yet done. We are going to need allies throughout the region to counteract the Islamic State and to counteract Iran’s influence. We have had those allies for decades. The alliances have been strained over the last six years but that does not mean that they are broken and that we can’t resurrect them in defense of our common interests.
iF: Even though President Obama has overseen a series of cuts to our defense budget over the years, the Pentagon budget remains enormous and there are many areas that could still be reformed. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, what can Congress do to institute appropriate reform? How can Congress author a budget that keeps America safe but also makes sure money is spent appropriately?
TC: Our defense has been cut to the core. We’re way beyond fat, we’re beyond muscle, we’re down to the bone. If I’m not mistaken, it’s fallen in absolute dollars by $200 billion since 2008. It’s fallen as a share of the budget, which reflects our government’s priorities, and it’s fallen as a share of our Gross Domestic Product, which reflects the fact that we can actually afford more. So we have to increase defense spending. We have to be prepared to fight a war if we want to deter a war from beginning in the first place. However, there are opportunities for further reform. For instance in reforming the way we acquire future weapon systems or perhaps shifting from the super high-tech procurement model that we often follow trying to get weapons for the next generation as opposed to continuing to fund today’s weapons which are working perfectly well. The A-10 Warthog would be a perfect example of that. We can’t under-invest in future weapon systems though, but at the same time, we shouldn’t be sacrificing highly effective weapon systems of today for weapons of the future.
iF: The number of veterans serving in Congress is at an all-time low. How does this affect Congress’s grasp of defense issues, from the nature of threats to the willingness to authorize the use of force to understanding the defense budget? Do you see more veterans such as yourself planning to run for Congress?
TC: I do see more veterans running for and serving in Congress. I think we’re at a historical low in part because so many World War Two and even Vietnam-era veterans are retiring or passing away. The generation of veterans to which I belong, Iraq and Afghanistan, are still in their 30s and early 40s and I think you’ll begin to see an increase, as you saw this year with Joni Ernst and Dan Sullivan and myself getting elected to the Senate and that will only continue. I think it’s a good thing for Congress to have more veterans, not just because of the experience they bring, because of the expertise in the military they bring, but also because of the values that they bring—values that are important to any organization, to the military, to business, to the United States Congress. So I look forward to serving with more veterans in the future.
iF: Senator Cotton, on behalf of the readers of inFOCUS Quarterly, thank you for your time, your service, and your clear and informative vision for the future of American global leadership.