By Hastings Wyman –
Cato the Elder, in the Second Century BC, ended every one of his speeches to the Roman senate with “Carthago delenda est” – Carthage must be destroyed. Furious that the Phoenician city had twice attacked Rome and threatened to do so again, Cato wanted the perpetual enemy out of commission.
Twenty-three centuries later, in the American senate, freshman Tom Cotton (R-AR) has taken up Cato’s role, drafting a letter to Iranian leaders and obtaining the signatures of 46 other senators in an attempt to derail President Obama’s nuclear negotiations with that country. In the face of major criticism, Cotton, like Cato, has soldiered on, a week later giving his maiden speech in the Senate in which, in current parlance, he doubled-down on his hawkish stance. The speech is the clearest statement you are likely to find of the beliefs of today’s hawks.
Cotton, unlike Cato, stopped short of advocating war. But what he did call for, strongly and unremittingly, is a major upgrade in the nation’s ability to wage war by substantially increasing the defense budget. “[T]he best way to avoid war,” he said, “is to be willing and prepared to fight a war in the first place,” and called for “global military dominance” for the United States.
Cotton listed the serious threats to the security of the United States one by one. He began with the Islamic State which “cuts the heads off Americans, burns alive hostages from allied countries, executes Christians, and enslaves women and girls.” He moved to Iran, “an outlaw regime that has been killing Americans for 35 years.” Next, North Korea: “America is largely handcuffed, watching as this rogue regime builds more bombs and missiles capable of striking the US.” Then on to Russia, with its increasingly aggressive behavior not only toward the Ukraine, but also Estonia, Latvia, and Poland, NATO allies all. Then back to the Far East, where he noted that China has increased its defense spending 600% in the last decade and a half and is trying to establish an “air-defense zone over the East China Sea” that could provoke a confrontation with important US allies.
Lest one discount the appeal of Cotton’s militaristic stance, consider that there’s a new atrocity somewhere in the world almost daily, much of it brought into American homes via television. As a result, 80% of Americans now believe that ISIS poses a serious threat to this nation, up from 63% last September, according to a CNN/ORC poll taken in mid-March. Even more telling, 62% favor using US troops against ISIS, while only 30% are opposed, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released in early March. (Whether those numbers would hold if American troops were being killed in Middle Eastern deserts is another matter.)
Cotton grew up on his family’s cattle farm in Yell County, Arkansas. He graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School. After the 9/11 attacks, he left a lucrative law practice “where he could wear $1,000 suits,” says Richard Beardon, a Little Rock lobbyist and political consultant (R) and instead “went to Army Ranger training, the toughest branch, and asked to be deployed overseas,” serving in multiple missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. “He cares deeply for this country and cares deeply for the military,” says Beardon.
Jay Barth, professor of political science at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, says that Cotton, 37, “has a bio that’s ready-made for TV ads, as we saw in Arkansas last year” and “unquestionably has the brain power to really stand out.” While Cotton’s potential as a presidential candidate is more likely in 2020 or 2024, next year “he would be a viable veep candidate,” says Barth. His only question is whether Cotton has “the kind of personal warmth to make it in those early primary states… He doesn’t work a room very well.” He adds, however, that some of that can be learned.
Knowledgeable experts on both sides of the nation’s right/left divide have assessments of today’s world far different from Cotton’s. He may or not be right.
If Neville Chamberlain’s Munich agreement with Hitler had indeed brought peace in his time, Winston Churchill might be remembered as a warmonger whose bellicosity could have brought death and destruction to Britain. Instead, Churchill is remembered as a prescient and courageous leader who brought his beleaguered nation to victory over Nazi Germany, while Chamberlain has become the symbol of appeasement in the face of an evil and determined enemy.
Is Cotton simply an angry jingoist, remembered in future text books in a footnote, or the realistic and patriotic voice whose warnings helped defeat the forces that would bring harm to this nation? History, not his current supporters or critics, may be his final judge.