None Dare Call It Treason: Tom Cotton, Iran and Old GOP Ideas - Rolling Stone
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None Dare Call It Treason: Tom Cotton, Iran and Old GOP Ideas

The letter sent by 47 Republican Congressmen to the Iranian government is part of a long history of right-wing mayhem

Tom CottonTom Cotton

Tom Cotton, grossly enough, has a point.

Justin Sullivan

Two weeks before freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and 46 Senate Republican co-signatories sent a Missed Connections letter to Iranian hardliners (“Saw you in Tehran . . . thought you might want to get together and sabotage nuclear arms control talks?”), sparking accusations of treason, I got to see Cotton in action at the Conservative Political Action Conference. I already knew him as a bad liar who still thinks Iraq was involved in 9/11, wants to prosecute New York Times reporters and fears the inevitable partnership betweenMexican drug cartels and ISIS, but homeboy can work a room.

CPAC is a bubble of conservative neuroses, improbably packed into a weekend at a Maryland resort called the Gaylord. American power abuts the certitude that everyone in America is going to die tomorrow. The triumphalism of the American Dream, indivisible from conservatism, is as axiomatic as the fact that America has been destroyed by homosocialists. Sitting next to noted death walrus John Bolton, Cotton fit right in.

The CPAC conference room was standing-room only, stuffy with faint sweat, hot worsted wool and heavy breathing for boilerplate comments you could have predicted before you crossed the threshold. Cotton – who looks appropriately like Anthony Perkins in Psycho – proudly likened America to Rome, an empire that slowly tore itself apart over for-profit foreign wars, external threats leveraged to drown out domestic discontent, revenue diverted from infrastructure. Listeners murmured approvingly. Cotton asserted the need to send America to war to “defend its national interests” against “trans-national terrorist groups.” By his utterly meaningless definitions, we need to fight anyone, and we need to do it anywhere, and it is our right. A thrill went through the audience.

It’s easy to think Cotton is stupid and easy to think he’s insane. His robotically repeating the words “Barack Obama” 74 times during a debate or claiming that signing up for Obamacare will get your identity stolen by Russian hackers feeds both theories in a way that seems too simple. Cotton knows his audience, and he knows that the Republican Party has purity tested itself so many times that an entire conference room of people refusing to leave until they could touch his hand bears more resemblance to the Republican voting bloc than not.

The New York Times editorial page called his conduct “disgraceful” – but despite embarrassingly cretinous excuses after the fact, sending a letter to Iran to undermine Obama’s P5+1 nuclear arms control talks actually wasn’t a bad move. Obstructing presidential foreign policy has a rich bipartisan history. Cotton’s short-term strategy works on the campaign trail and in accordance with the necessities of neoconservative foreign policy. And his interference represents little more than another enactment of the theory of government espoused by his party. To admit that everything he believes in is either completely idiotic or extremely dangerous doesn’t take away from the fact that Tom Cotton, grossly enough, has a point.


Interfering in presidential foreign and military policy works. 

The foreign policy history of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration is more or less one of trying to circumvent a recalcitrant Congress. The Neutrality Acts of the mid-1930s, driven by Republican and Southern Democrat isolationism as well as a few progressives’ belief in historian Charles Beard’s “merchants of death” interpretation of the First World War, prevented Roosevelt from intervening in events in Europe, even as Stukas used Spain as a testing range.

Meanwhile, Republican anti-interventionists, even into 1940, after eight years of Japanese slaughter in Manchuria, denied that America had any essential interests in China, dismissed the occupation as “an Asiatic question,” scoffed at the idea that Japan could pose a military threat to the United States (“I suppose she is going to fly her big tanks over the Canadian Rockies”), and wrote off Japan as impossible to invade. China was disregarded as “backward,” and future Republican Secretary of State John Foster Dulles praised the Japanese as “a people of energy, industry and ambition.” 

Among all the conservative cries of “Munich! Munich!” these days – both Bolton and Cotton parroted it at CPAC like a Teddy Ruxpin shorting out in a pool of blood – you don’t hear a lot about Republican anti-interventionism in the 1930s, when Hitler was on the cover of Time, Mussolini was praised for his contempt of labor and anti-Semite industrialist Henry Ford was being given the highest civilian honor Nazi Germany could bestow. Japan just sneaked up on everyone, and Hitler is always Chamberlain’s fault, with Republican Senators like Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Taft skating on the butcher’s bill. Acknowledging this history tends to cloud the whole narrative of GOP moral clarity and the unalloyed necessity for the United States to defend itself under any circumstances. Still, whatever you think of the reasoning or outcome, this binding of the president’s powers in military and foreign affairs was wholly legal.

Besides, illegal works too, and Cotton knows this. In 1968, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon dispatched a friend of his campaign named Anna Chennault to tell the North Vietnamese to back away from peace talks with the Democratic Johnson administration, promising the Vietnamese a better deal. Nixon’s campaign guarantee that he had a secret plan to win in Vietnam would have meant nothing if his opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, could have helped end the war and taken credit for it. And so the North Vietnamese backed away, Nixon condemned the Johnson administration for failing to even get the Vietnamese to the bargaining table; Nixon and genocide-and-assassination hobbyist Henry Kissinger admitted to each other that the war was unwinnable as early as 1969; and in the meantime 22,000 more Americans and hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese and Cambodians died. But, hey, Nixon won the 1968 election by a 0.7 percent margin, and Kissinger went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Richard Nixon

Nothing was made of this at the time, because the Johnson administration only discovered this via illegal FBI and NSA wiretaps of the Nixon campaign. When a guy mugs you while you’re breaking into his house, neither of you calls the cops. That said, Nixon’s actions have been part of the record for decades, and even if you walked outside right now and interviewed 100 people about this, you’d be lucky to find one person who knew diddly shit about it, because most people don’t read about this stuff. More to the point, you probably couldn’t find one person who cared. In the increasingly Manichean atmosphere of American politics, there will always be some politically exculpatory explanation. Nixon had to do it to stop the Democrats from “stabbing the troops in the back,” or Both sides do it, so why should I care?

The Reagan administration in some ways played these events out in reverse, beginning with what some people believe was a Reagan campaign conspiracy to sabotage hostage crisis talks in Iran and ending with the indisputably real violation of the Boland Amendment – a series of legally binding additions to congressional bills that prevented the Reagan administration from giving aid to the Nicaraguan contras. The Reagan administration had already used the CIA to try to overthrow the Sandinista government, and in this case a Democratic Congress exerted its ability to deny a Republican president the means to further his military and foreign policy. The Reagan administration’s response was to fund the contras by illegally sell arms to the same Iran (hello again!) that candidate Reagan had excoriated and that he would subsequently arm Iraq against. 

The Iran-Contra affair was ultimately a vastly more explicitly illegal enterprise at every stage than Nixon’s clownish burglary, campaign ratfuckery and slush funds – and yet the response to it, from a nation still disgusted by the post-Watergate bummer process of honest self-evaluation, was bipartisan compartmentalization and hyper-partisan pardon. (In the latter case, quite literally, as George H.W. Bush pardoned multiple Reagan administration conspirators and saved the nation from accountability.) The response to Iran-Contra codified the Nixon paraphrasis of If the president does it, it’s not illegal into something between best practices and standard operating procedure. Everything between Bush and the neocon crowd’s “noble lies” about Iraq, to Obama’s refusal to indict them, to Obama’s technocratic insistence that he and his team think really hard about the Kill List before turning Yemeni kids booking down the street into hamburger flows from this concession made by Americans to government malfeasance. So go ahead, yell at Iran’s government, lick the Supreme Ayatollah’s cheek and whisper te quiero, hombre, call the president a pussy. Do whatever the fuck you want.

This is the world Tom Cotton lives in – where you can undermine a president legally or illegally, and it won’t matter. The record will be interpreted as needed by believers. You can even do something illegal with the same Iran that in your next breath you claim endangers us all. A crime enumerated in black and white will be forgiven by 50 percent of the voting audience just on sheer mistrust of the other 50 percent, and as for the rest, appealing to America’s “vital national security interests” will do most of the work.


Tom Cotton knows how powerful vital national security interests sound, enough that they can ring a bell from Tehran to the Iowa caucus.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Cotton wrote his clownshoes letter to Tehran to give leverage to hardline anti-American elements within the Iran government to pull out of any further talks. “You hate and mistrust us,” it seems to say, “well, let me assure you, you’re right. We’re gonna do a dickhead 180 on this agreement on Friday, January 20th, 2017.” Cotton is doing little more than giving Iran a backdoor escape to the status quo that serves him well. Because, if Obama and the P5+1 can accomplish a nuclear deal, he and his 46 buddies are fucked.

First, how to do you run against an accord where Iran allows more inspections and more transparency and voluntarily delays its own capacity to reach nuclear weapons capability? If you rely on national security as a Fear Stick to beat paranoia into the rubes to induce them to vote for you, America achieving greater security without your input undermines your credentials. Cotton and crew will claim that Iran will lie and try to enrich uranium in secret, but “They’re going to lie anyway, so let’s have less access to their country” isn’t an argument. This doesn’t even work in your personal life. Here, try it: “There’s a person in my neighborhood who lies to me and may threaten me. I will be safer the less I know about him and if cops can’t drop by his house.” Bye, it’s been fun.

Second, how do you run on that accord? As much as Cotton is giving cover to Iranian hardliners, torpedoing an agreement with Iran gives much more cover to the 2016 candidates from his own party. The great thing about the absence of a nuclear deal is that you don’t have to have an opinion about it. As soon as it’s in place, what the fuck are you going to do with it? What if it’s popular and has every indication of being a success? Do you rescind it and craft a different agreement? How? That last part might not sound too difficult, but remember that the GOP has been running on “repeal and replace Obamacare” since 2010 and still hasn’t come up with the “replace” part.

Third, the threat that successful negotiations present to Cotton and his ilk cannot be overstated. They’ve spent roughly 35 years trying to inflate a regional power nearly 6,500 miles from Washington D.C. into an existential threat to the entire United States, and the last thing they can afford is for the American voter to awaken to the histrionic bullshit nature of that campfire horror story. Perhaps more open cooperation with Iran would lead Americans to reevaluate the fact that Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban over the murder of seven diplomats in 1998 and allowed us a virtual free hand along that border at the start of our Afghan adventure. Maybe people would question why the Bush administration absolutely squandered any attempt at normalization when Iranian emissaries floated a 2003 proposal on behalf of reformist President Mohammad Khatami to renounce Iran’s support for terrorism, nuclear weapons development and an anti-Israel position. The Bush administration never even replied. It ignored the reformer of which it could not be certain; in a proud American tradition you can trace to most of Latin America, it preferred the monster with surer dimensions. And, true to form, the reformist was undermined at home, replaced by hardliners like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who resumed the script that neoconservatives had relied upon for nearly a quarter century. Speaking of which: Nothing inconveniences Cotton and neoconservatism in general more than the obdurate realpolitik truth that there is no more forceful ally that America could find against ISIS than the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Fourth, even if Iran listens to Cotton and backs out, that probably won’t be his fault either. It’s always easy to blame the sitting president for anything that happens on his watch, even if those events are impossibly out of his control. Truman lost us China, a nation we never had. Kennedy and Johnson (and later Democratic Congresses) lost us Vietnam, a nation we never had. On his watch, Obama lost us Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya – all nations we have never had. And even if something sticks to Cotton, half of the voting population will tune out his critics as political stooges, and enough of the rest will buy the familiar line that “We kept sprinting away from the bargaining table as fast as possible, but Our Imperial Overlord Barack Obama wouldn’t meet us halfway.” Cotton’s tactic has the virtue of being legal, the virtue of working and the virtue of being something his party believes in.


Critics who leapt on Cotton and his 46 fellow clowns for “treason” for violating Nixon’s nemesis, the Logan Act, were so close to getting the point. To read most analyses, Cotton engaged in an act of political grandstanding that went too far and undermined the faith and function of the United States. It’s a judgment that relies on the begged question that Cotton even remotely gives a shit about that. He doesn’t. Undermining the United States’ function as it is presently constituted is a feature, not a bug

The American Republic has always been a fundamentally screwheaded experiment in the perversion of democracy, empowering property as much as people, while aggregating people in distorted non-representative territories to diminish their leverage on power. And that’s just in one branch of government. At the same time, it structured the two active branches – the legislature and executive – to be mutual antagonists, glossing such an instantly sclerotic system as a check against tyranny when a look at the early conditions for the franchise reveal a much more profound check against any momentum from great mass of human beings within its domain. Tom Cotton likes that just fine. Anything like the smooth, responsive performance of a parliamentary democracy is anathematized by Cotton and his ilk because it is theoretically possible for them to, at some point, lose power.

To be fair, a large portion of this fondness for a non-functioning government stems from the president being a black Democrat, but stopping there imputes solely a racial motive to a comprehensive and enduring contempt for government’s existence at all. Holding government hostage over the debt ceiling again and again, holding it hostage over a Homeland Security bill, holding a knife to its throat over Iran – these are just elaborations on a theme from the 1990s. Back then, Cotton’s fellow travelers and their predecessors shut down the government when it was run by a self-made white bubba from Cotton’s own Arkansas, a guy who embodied the American dream about as much as anyone can, a drawling southern burger-fiend who liked chicks with big hair. The point wasn’t who was running the government, but that someone was trying to run it in the first place.

In its Constitutional idolatry and boundless bellicosity, Cotton’s Republican Party has arrogated to itself the presumption that anything it does is explicitly American. The normative conditions of patriotism are whatever they want to do at any given moment, because only they have the courage to defend you from enemies abroad with guns and enemies at home via a fundamentalist reading of the texts and hadith of Our Founding Prophets (which, conveniently, also mentions guns). Anything outside their chosen agenda is met with the word no, which is the finest distillation of their agenda for anyone other than their own.  

This prospective nuclear deal with Iran merely creates a shredded barbecue plate of corpses and the idea of America as commonwealth of disparate voices represented in equal strength. Government is not allowed to function when it disagrees with Cotton, because he not only considers government’s existence indivisible from his ideology but also because the Constitution in his reading explicitly demands that he do this. You cannot chasten a man who believes by the word of his holiest texts that this is his job. And his job, as written, is to advise and consent. On Iran, his message is clear. His advice is to stop, and you do not have his consent, which reifies not only the illegitimacy of your actions but the holy writ of his own. Without his consent, you cannot have anything at all, except a potential nuclear clash of messianic visions of world order. In which case – to quote the previous president’s nuanced address to the same enemies foreign and domestic – bring it on.

In This Article: GOP, Republicans


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