Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) was elected to the United States Senate in 2015 at the age of 37, having previously served one term in the House of Representatives. In 2005, Cotton was commissioned in the United States Army. An infantry officer, he rose to the rank of captain. He served in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he was awarded the Bronze Star and Combat Infantryman Badge, and he remained in the Army Reserve until 2013. He is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; the Special Committee on Aging; and the Select Committee on Intelligence; and the Joint Economic Committee. JPC Senior Director Shoshana Bryen spoke with Sen. Cotton in late August.
inFOCUS: American defense rests on the assumption of a supportive consensus about our national interests. Do we have a consensus today on the key issues of defense?
Senator Tom Cotton: There remains bipartisan support, maybe to a lesser degree in Washington with the Democrats today, but across the country that America needs to play an active role in the world. We need to be assertive in defense of our interests, our allies, and freedom where we can across the globe. We took a wrong turn in the Obama era, in that we refused to take decisive action against our main rivals. We let China’s aggression go largely unchallenged. We tried to reset relations with a Russia that had no desire to change its behavior. And of course, we basically handed over so much influence in the Middle East to Iran.
That’s on top of the very deep budget cuts that the Obama administration made to the military, constraining our ability to operate in multiple theaters at one time. The good news is that has been largely reversed under the Trump administration, starting with the budget, but also ending the retreat from the world, the willingness to use military force in a targeted, calibrated way, such as the strike against Qasem Soleimani or the strikes in Syria, and the willingness to stand up for and assert the interests and the aspirations of the American people, for ourselves, and for our allies.
iF: Will U.S.-led “snapback” sanctions on Iran have an impact without a UN Security Council vote?
Sen. Cotton: I certainly hope that once snapback sanctions are applied, the rest of the Security Council and the rest of the world will respect the conventional arms ban on Iran. I find it hard to believe that Great Britain and France are going to weaken, and perhaps vitiate, their ability in the future to veto resolutions at the Security Council by pulling some lawyerly, procedural tricks to pretend that we can’t invoke snapback sanctions.
Assuming we do, the question becomes do other nations respect those sanctions? Do Russia and China in particular respect the conventional arms ban? If they don’t, the United Nations has to show that it’s willing to act against those countries and enforce its own resolutions. And the United States has to lead in that effort as well. We cannot have a world in which the United Nations has imposed a conventional arms ban on Iran but China is selling it advanced drones and Russia is selling it advanced air defense systems.
iF: How can the U.S. work better with our allies? Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and even Vietnam are very concerned about China. Can Taiwan be a piece of that?
Sen. Cotton: The Trump administration has taken great strides to unite a coalition of countries throughout East and South Asia to defend our common interest against China becoming a hegemon that calls the shots in Asia and around the world, as China hopes to do. These countries are of very different traditions, cultures and political systems, from Korea and Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, India – and very few would want to be a vassal state to China. Of course, they are all relatively small compared to China, from an economic, demographic, geographic standpoint, so they need a strong partner in the United States to support that coalition through military operations, joint exercises, trade and economic relations. We have growing ties with most of the countries on China’s periphery, and political and diplomatic measures as well. We’ve had them with us in the fight over sovereignty in the South China Sea.
If America leads, and we have especially strong allies among the democratic nations on China’s periphery, I think we can effectively lead a coalition that will check Chinese ambitions.
Taiwan is obviously a special case because both sides contend that there is one China. United States policy is and should remain that it will ultimately be for the people of mainland China and Taiwan to decide their political futures. But the one thing we will not tolerate is any forcible effort by mainland China to reunite Taiwan. That has to be solely the result of free and open negotiations and diplomacy. It’s ultimately a choice for the Taiwanese people and the people of mainland China.
The United States’ role in that is to uphold our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to continue to sell Taiwan the kind of weapons it needs to defend its autonomy from potential attack by mainland China. And we must defend Taiwan diplomatically around the world. China is once again trying to poach the few remaining countries that recognize Taipei as China’s government, as opposed to Beijing. And they continue to try to exclude Taiwan from organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). As we saw earlier this year with an outbreak of the virus, it would have been much better if Taiwan had at least observer status at the WHO. These are the kinds of things the U.S. can do to help Taiwan preserve its traditions and its autonomy while upholding our commitments to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act.
iF: In your view, could the United States put U.S.-manned air defense systems on Taiwan? Not sell them, but actually maintain the air defense systems there.
Sen. Cotton: I certainly favor putting advanced air defense systems in Taiwan. I’m also aware that the Taiwanese military is more than capable, with the right training and equipment from U.S. defense contractors, to operate all these systems. I would say that any consideration of the presence of U.S. forces in Taiwan would be done only in close consultations after careful deliberation with the Taiwanese government. In addition to accelerating and expanding arm sales to Taiwan, we should also invite Taiwanese military personnel into U.S. military exercises. The kinds of naval exercises, for instance, that we conduct in Hawaii every year, or some of our shared exercises in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea. I think that would be useful both for the United States Navy, the United States military more broadly, as well as the Taiwanese military.
iF: Would the Japanese or South Koreans conduct an exercise with the U.S. Navy and Taiwan?
Sen. Cotton: I believe they would if the U.S. makes it clear that we think it’s a high priority for our common defense posture in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, especially if it’s at a large multi-lateral annual event, such as RIMPAC exercises near Hawaii.
Allowing Taiwan to participate in something like RIMPAC, or in some of the less regular, more tailored exercises that we conduct in the Western Pacific, is always condemned by Beijing. The Chinese government always threatens grave consequences, yet when it comes to pass, it seems to issue sternly worded communiques and not much more. It reminds me of the decision to finally move our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That was supposedly going to preclude, once and for all, any kind of peace deals in the Middle East, yet just a couple of years later there was a breakthrough agreement to normalize relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The “smart” foreign policy set always has reasons not to take actions like bolstering Taiwanese defenses or training together with them. Those reasons often come not to pass when you do it in reality.
iF: That’s a good thought to carry around to lots of different places in the world, including perhaps to Hong Kong.
Sen. Cotton: What has happened in Hong Kong is a tragedy. The regime in Beijing has cracked down on Hong Kong’s centuries-old traditions, its democratic autonomy under their joint declaration with the UK when they resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong. It shows how intent [President] Xi Jinping is on consolidating power inside of China for the communist party, consequences outside of China be damned. He was willing to take the economic, financial, and political hit that came from cracking down on Hong Kong because he didn’t want to have it as a democratic example on Chinese soil.
The administration has already taken a number of actions, which I support, including revoking Hong Kong’s special economic status, imposing sanctions on party officials, and ending our extradition agreement with the city. Congress has also taken action. We passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which mandates further sanctions against communist officials and financial institutions that aided the crackdown. Going forward, we should continue to act where we can. The U.S. should make Hong Kong less attractive as a financial hub for investment into mainland China because we shouldn’t allow the Chinese Communist Party and its oligarchs to get rich off of special status if Beijing is no longer recognizing that special status.
iF: The Belt and Road Initiative for China goes into Central Asia and into the Middle East, and China has its one and only foreign naval base in Djibouti, about eight miles from U.S. forces in the Red Sea. Is our government clear on the implications?
Sen. Cotton: I’m clear about China’s intentions in the Middle East, and I know that the president and others in the administration are as well. It’s not just the base in Djibouti. China also views its soon-to-be-base in Gwadar (Pakistan), and then hopefully, in Beijing’s eyes, a base in or around the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Aden, to be a way to encircle key choke points in the Middle East. Djibouti allows them to have a degree of control over the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which is critical for access to the Suez Canal. And if they get a base somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, in the Strait of Hormuz, it will allow them to secure their energy supply lines coming out of the Middle East, but also allow them to hold at risk the energy supplies of so many other nations. Not so much the United States anymore because of our fracking revolution, but Europe, Japan, and other countries who depend still on Middle Eastern oil.
We ought to be very concerned about the base they already have on the Red Sea, but also the potential to turn their port at Gwadar into a military base. Especially any effort to open a military base on the Arabian Peninsula that could hold the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf at risk. The administration is following those developments very carefully and working with our partners in the Middle East to try to ensure that China doesn’t have de facto sea control over some of the world’s most critical waterways.
iF: There are rumors that the Chinese are going to offer the Lebanese money to rebuild the port of Beirut after that explosion and you know what they want in exchange for that. What is the possibility that we end up with a Chinese base in Beirut?
Sen. Cotton: It’s certainly possible because you’ve correctly stated China’s ambitions, but we ought not allow it to happen. The United States with its partners, especially its Arab partners, ought to work in concert to prevent China from establishing an additional foothold on one of those critical waterways in the Eastern Mediterranean. That is in no one’s interest. It’s not in Israel’s interest. It is not in Lebanon’s interest to become essentially a debtor client to the Chinese Communist Party, or in the interests of the Arab nations that could partner with Lebanon. What happened in the port of Beirut is a terrible tragedy, but it would also be tragic to allow that explosion to give the Chinese communist government a foothold in the Mediterranean.
iF: The U.S. has armed and trained the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) for years. We expected it to protect the country, protect the people, maybe to work against Hezbollah. But during recent demonstrations, the army actually fired on demonstrators in Beirut. Should the U.S. continue to arm and train the LAF? Are they beholden to the Hezbollah government?
Sen. Cotton: I’m concerned about how Hezbollah works to co-opt the Lebanese Armed Forces as it has done with other Lebanese government institutions. At the very least, the aid we provide to the LAF should come with conditions that it does not become an arm of Hezbollah, but also that it would act against Hezbollah terror cells and missile depots. The Department of Defense needs to continue to monitor our arms shipments to prevent them from being diverted to Hezbollah. The Pentagon also needs to monitor the actions of the Lebanese Armed Forces relative to their own citizens, as we do with so many other nations to which we supply arms.
That explosion again was a terrible tragedy. But if there can be any positive developments from the explosion, it might be that the Lebanese people are beginning to sour on Hezbollah and its role in the government. Remember the group has so many of the key governmental posts, all the ministers of which have now resigned. Hopefully the people of Lebanon, working with our allies in the region, such as France – which has long historical interest there – can help the new government move in a way that excludes Hezbollah’s influence. More than any time in recent years, there is a chance to do so through Lebanon’s government institutions, and that’s especially true of the armed forces.
iF: Could you talk to us about the maximum pressure campaign and its impact on the Iranian economy?
Sen. Cotton: The maximum pressure campaign has yielded great dividends over the last two years or so. The economy has declined by almost 10 percent; and will probably see an even worse decline this year because of the global contraction related to the coronavirus. That means that Iran’s coffers are now relatively bare but they have a lot of mouths to feed all around the Middle East, from the paramilitary forces in Iraq, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the Houthis in Yemen, and various proxies in Syria. And they just don’t have enough money to go around. That was not the case five years ago. After the Obama administration gave them pallets of cash, they were flush with a strong and growing economy.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal has had positive secondary effects, putting aside the implications for Iran getting a nuclear weapon. The fact that Iran has a weak and deteriorating economy, so it can no longer generously support all of its proxy forces around the region. Its own people are growing weary of having a government that’s so incompetent that it shoots down civilian airliners as they did to the Ukrainian airplane back in January. These are all things that flow from the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
iF: You are one of the co-sponsors of the U.S.-Israel Military Capability Act of 2020.
Sen. Cotton: U.S. defense cooperation with Israel is already very deep and very broad, but there are some dangerous gaps in our capabilities that would be closed if we collaborated more on research and development (R&D). The U.S. already has a bilateral working group, the Defense Acquisition Advisory Group, but that’s focused more on acquisition and sustainment, and less on research, development, and engineering (RD&E). We propose a permanent and dedicated forum for our countries’ militaries to share intelligence-informed military capability requirements. So the U.S.-Israel Operations Technology Working Group, as we propose to call it, could develop combined plans to research and field weapon systems as quickly and affordably as possible so we can get them out to our troops on the front line, both American and Israeli. Above all, the legislation will help the United States and Israel through our combined technological capabilities win the military and technology competition already underway with Russia and especially with China.
iF: We had an interview with an Israeli general who said the area of technology concern is expanding because of China. Is the U.S. considering more things now to have dual-use military application than we used to and therefore being more restrictive?
Sen. Cotton: Yes. As military competition has grown more technologically advanced, sectors of our economy that used to be primarily civilian, focused on non-military purposes have military application. Information technology, quantum computing, artificial intelligence. We’re not the only ones that recognize that. The Communist Party in Beijing has what they call “civil military fusion,” which harnesses the power of their own tech sector for the benefit of the People’s Liberation Army. They have laws that specifically demand that civilian companies cooperate with and turn over technology to the military of China. It’s just a fact of modern life. Things that were once seen as purely civilian in use are increasingly dual-use, both civilian and military, and we have to be mindful of that change.
iF: And is this ongoing cooperation with Israel going to help define those areas for both sides?
Sen. Cotton: Yes. One of Israel’s great advantages in the world, both economic and military, is it’s incredibly dynamic and innovative people have led to one of the world’s truly outstanding high-tech sectors. Those high-tech industries will increasingly be useful, not just for civilian purposes, but for military purposes as well. Same thing with ours.
iF: How well can NATO work in the Middle East with Turkey on one end, or in the center of Europe with Germany being Russia’s biggest client for energy?
Sen. Cotton: It is regrettable that Germany depends so much on Russia for its gas. It is entirely unacceptable that Germany has gone to the greatest lengths – to include intimidating, threatening, smaller NATO and European Union partner nations – to try to get the Nord Stream Two Pipeline built through the Baltic Sea. This is one of the worst things that a NATO ally can do to the others, or to a country like Ukraine, that’s constantly being threatened by Russia. They currently get all that gas through a series of pipelines that run through Eastern Europe into Germany and beyond. That means that if Russia wants to exert influence through energy politics on countries, such as the Baltic nations or Poland or Ukraine, it has to also cut off gas to its main client, Germany.
That’s politically very hard for Russia to do because Germany has a strong economy on which Russia is very dependent and therefore it would fight back. Germany doesn’t want to be dependent, though, on the vagaries of Eastern European politics and Russian meddling on the Eastern flank of NATO and the EU. So, they’ve decided to build a pipeline through the sea. I’ve taken action along with a handful of other senators and the administration to try to prevent that pipeline from being completed through very aggressive sanctions. Its completion would mean Russia could turn off the gas or take any other action against countries east of Germany in the dead of winter, while Germans sit comfortably in their warm living rooms, indifferent to the plight of Estonians, Poles, or Ukrainians. This is entirely a deliberate decision in Berlin that they never should have taken.
We should use every possible avenue of our national power to stop that from happening. It’s still in a pause, but it’s a very close-run thing. They only have five percent left of the pipeline to build.
As for Turkey and its role in NATO, I’m very concerned about the trajectory of Turkey over the last 20 years and also U.S.-Turkish relations. The Turkish government under [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has taken a number of actions hostile to our interests, and our allies, just in recent months, to say nothing of the last 20 years. They purchased a Russian air defense system. They aggressively are intervening in the Libyan civil war. They’ve been very aggressively trying to lay claims to oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. And they continue, of course, to bankroll and protect Hamas operatives and affiliates and the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region.
We have to draw a firmer line with Turkey. For instance, that they’ll have access to Russia’s S-400 air defense system or the U.S. F-35 fighter jet, but they won’t have both. At the same time, we have to build on areas of common interest as a NATO partner, like containing Iran and trying to work through, as best we can, a lot of these thorny issues. I hope that we’ll see some improvement in the government of Turkey. I hope the government of Turkey will become more responsive to its large and pluralistic people.
iF: Is it better to have Turkey in NATO than Turkey out of NATO?
Sen. Cotton: I think we’re more likely to exert the kind of influence we need over Turkey to play a positive and constructive role in things – like countering Iran – with Turkey in NATO than Turkey out of NATO. It’s not even clear how you’d go about removing any member nation from NATO. Having them in our multilateral alliance, we ought to work, as best we can, to try to improve their cooperation with us on bilateral terms, but also to improve the way they’re operating within NATO. We want to try to minimize the slow pace of decision-making and delays that often emanate from Turkey and its delegates to NATO.
iF: You have covered an amazing amount of time and space here, and I cannot tell you how much we appreciate your answers. This is one terrific interview. On behalf of JPC and our inFOCUS readers, thank you, Senator Cotton.