Who is Tom Cotton?
If you had asked that question a week ago, anyone outside of the D.C. beltway most likely would have turned up a shrug. But that was before Cotton penned an open letter to the leaders of Iran, co-signed by 46 other Republicans in the Senate, which threatened that President Obama’s successor could obviate an agreement on the nuclear program with a pen stroke. Now Cotton, the freshly-elected junior senator from Arkansas, has a target on his back.
A petition on WhiteHouse.gov calling for federal charges against the signers of the letter, who some are saying are in direct violation of diplomatic protocol, has garnered over 165,000 signatures on the site. It alleges that the senators who supported the letter, 47 of the 54 Republicans in the chamber, violated the Logan Act, signed by President John Adams in 1799, which forbids unauthorized citizens from interfering in diplomatic relations.
Cotton, who unseated two-term incumbent Mark Pryor to claim his seat in November, has defended the letter, addressed publicly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as a boon to President Obama’s negotiating stance with Tehran. “I’m trying to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon today, ten years from now, 20 years from now,” Cotton told ABC News on Wednesday. It’s a stern five-paragraph reprimand to Khamenei and the leaders of the Islamic Republic, calling into question their understanding of the U.S. constitution. “Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement,” Cotton wrote in the letter, released on Monday.
Secretary of State John Kerry, once chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reacted to Monday’s letter with “utter disbelief.” His Clinton administration predecessor at Foggy Bottom, Madeline Albright, went a step further. “I’m surprised it’s even legal,” she told USA Today. Khamenei himself used the letter to make the case that Washington is “disintegrating” due to its fractious politics. Legal questions aside, there are unforced errors in the letter, such as Cotton’s contention that Congress could wipe the slate clean in a new administration. It isn’t quite that simple.
Cotton seems to be considered a lightweight by elite foreign policy Democrats. Other than his tours as a platoon leader in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a bronze star in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, a famed paratrooper unit, and two years as a junior member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, his experience on the international stage is limited.
So how did Cotton become the messenger for Republicans on Iran? At 37, he’s the youngest member of the Senate by nearly three years, yet his letter was co-signed by the likes of Senator John McCain, the Republican from Arizona who twice ran for president, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who’s mulling his own bid for the G.O.P. nomination in 2016.
But Cotton is also freer to act, precisely because he doesn’t yet have the burden of a legacy or a future campaign to tend to. What’s more, he’s not likely to face a significant challenge at the polls any time soon: Arkansas has been trending solidly Republican for a decade. Far from a suicide mission, the letter may have achieved exactly what Cotton wanted: a turn in the spotlight and credibility on a key foreign policy issue for the Obama Administration. He’s made himself a figure to watch as negotiations continue.