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Sen. Tom Cotton blames Obama and Clinton for ending wars Republicans started

REUTERS/Mike Segar
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton speaking at the Republican National Convention on Monday.

The first night of the Republican convention was mostly a snoozefest. The keynote speaker, Melania Trump, is very lovely and she read a very boring, almost generic speech, but she read it in English, which is not her native language, so good for her. I gather there are several phrases and word choices that appear to have been lifted from a speech given by Michelle Obama in 2008, but I don’t really care. We have much bigger concerns this year than whether Melania is a plagiarist. Team Trump says she wrote the speech herself; color me skeptical, but I really don’t care.

If you didn’t watch the rest of the evening, you didn’t miss much. For my little report, I’d like to focus on a speech that I suspect will get very little attention, but might be worth more because it captures the great difficulty of thinking clearly and speaking honestly about what we often call “national security” but which we should really call the American war factory.

The speech was by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a rising Republican star, whose turn came in the middle of the lineup. His job was to rip apart the horrendous “Obama-Clinton” record on “national security.” Cotton went to Harvard College and Harvard Law, so I assume he’s pretty smart, and his remarks sounded kind of smart if you don’t think about them much. But I’m going to argue that they were really either quite stupid or quite dishonest. His theme was supposed to be about why America fights wars.

I transcribed a chunk of it, to discuss it here, so before I comment on it, here’s the chunk. According to Sen. Cotton:

We don’t fight because we hate our enemies but because we love our country. We love its freedom and we love that we as Americans are born equal and live free and that no one can boss us around or rule us without our consent.

We know that these things are worth fighting for and dying for because they make life worth living for.

Our warriors and their families don’t ask for much. We’re blessed to serve and we’re grateful for the generosity of our fellow citizens. But there are a few things that we’d like. We’d like a commander-in-chief who speaks of winning wars and not merely ending wars. We’d like a commander-in-chief who calls the enemy by its name. A commander-in-chief who draws red lines cautiously but enforces them ruthlessly.

And it would be nice to have a commander-in-chief who can be trusted to handle classified information. And we’d like politicians who treat our common defense as the chief responsibility of our federal government, not just another government program.

This isn’t much to ask for, but eight years without it is more than enough, and another four years is unthinkable. …

So let me quote the last Republican vice president about the consequences of the last time a Clinton was in the White House and let me say it, this time again, directly to our troops in a Trump-Pence administration and with a Republican Congress: ‘Help is on the way.’

Now believe me, believe me, no man wants more war if he’s seen the face of war. I’ve planned memorial services for fallen comrades in the mountains of Afghanistan. I’ve carried their flag-draped caskets off the plane. I’ve buried them at Arlington National Cemetery. But the wisdom of the ages affirms the counsel of our first president: ‘To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.’

The purpose of our common defense, after all, is to protect the American people and preserve our independence so we can enjoy the blessings of peace. Faith, freedom, family, prosperity.

My father and his father were willing to fight, so that their children and grandchildren could live in peace. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. But my generation is fighting, has fought, and will fight so that our children, my infant son, Gabriel, and the Christmas baby my wife and I are expecting might one day live in peace. And for that cause, I speak tonight not only to Republicans but to the millions of independents and Democrats who share that dream and who wish to make America safe again.

Thank you and God bless you.

You should know, if you don’t, that Cotton’s closing words, “Make America safe again,” were the official Trump Campaign theme of the evening. And, of course, a lot of speakers trashed Hillary Clinton for what happened at Benghazi and President Obama for his obvious general fecklessness in the matter of destroying our enemies.

The quote attributed to “our first president” is of course from George Washington, from his first State of the Union address to Congress in 1790. I agree with Washington that to have a strong defense will discourage others from attacking you. But come on, Sen. Cotton, the idea that anyone is planning a military attack and invasion of our country is ludicrous. The United States has, by many multiples, the most powerful military in the world. No one is going to invade us in the sense that Washington meant.

You can talk about 9/11, but that is hardly the kind of attack Washington had in mind, and a belief that we were militarily weak certainly had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden thinking he was going to invade and occupy U.S. territory. What he did was crazy, stupid and evil, but it was hardly something invited by U.S. military weakness.

The other unnamed quotee, the “last Republican vice president,” was Dick Cheney, who told the military during the 2000 campaign that “help is on the way.” But the “help” turned out to include the unnecessary and disastrous decision to invade Iraq on false – or at best mistaken – “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

That war cost a lot of American lives, destabilized Iraq and led – fairly directly – to the chaotic situation that fostered the rise of what we now call ISIS or ISIL, the very group against which Obama (who, unlike Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, actually did oppose the Iraq war in advance, saying that he didn’t oppose all wars, but he did oppose dumb wars) is blamed for not destroying.

So now Cotton – and Obama’s Republican critics generally – wants to blame Obama for ISIL, which came into existence thanks to the “dumb war” that “the last Republican vice president” got us into.

To make the case a little stronger, the Bush-Cheney-created chaos in Iraq also contributed to the chaos across the Mideast which cannot be sequestered from the chaos in Libya/Benghazi and in Syria, all of which are (according to the current bass-ackwards analysis) the messes that Republicans have the gall to blame Obama for not cleaning up.

Cotton, to be sure, did not help get us into Iraq. In fact, he fought there and also in Afghanistan. So maybe that gives him the credibility to talk about matters of war and peace, but not the authority to start the clock in 2009 so that all the problems in the world can be blamed on Obama.

The other big problem with Cotton’s history lesson, if you go back and read the excerpt above, is that he talks as if America’s recent wars have been defense of our “freedom.”

“We don’t fight because we hate our enemies but because we love our country. We love its freedom and we love that we as Americans are born equal and live free and that no one can boss us around or rule us without our consent. We know that these things are worth fighting for and dying for because they make life worth living for.”

Really? We were in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Kuwait, and Vietnam and …) to defend our freedom and that if we hadn’t gotten into those wars, we’d be getting bossed around by, by, by whom? Osama? Saddam? Ho Chi Minh?

It’s just gibberish, and every so often we should say so. We get in these wars to protect things like our “vital interests” (usually oil that happens to be under someone else’s sand) or to preserve our “credibility” (meaning what? that if we don’t get into this unnecessary war, people will think we might not get into the next one either) or just to preserve our (really indubitable) role as the most powerful country on earth.

Cotton’s snotty reference to Obama as someone who talks about “merely ending” wars rather than “winning” them seems to underrate the value of ending them, especially after it becomes clear that, in many cases, we should not have started them. We shed a great deal of blood (ours and theirs) over nine years in Vietnam because someone mistakenly thought that a U.S. craft had been fired upon in the Gulf of Tonkin, and maybe we’d be there still if we had insisted on “winning.”

The purpose of our common defense [said Cotton] is to protect the American people and preserve our independence so we can enjoy the blessings of peace. Faith, freedom, family, prosperity.

So war is what we do so we can have peace, and also families?

To summarize: The Iraq War was a war of choice that did not create a wave of democracy spreading across the Mideast but set off the perpetual chaos that still afflicts the region. Mike Pence and Hillary Clinton both voted for it. Donald Trump spoke in favor of it but now lies and says he opposed it. Barack Obama opposed it, saying it was a “dumb” idea. Tom Cotton fought in it, can’t be blamed for starting it, but I’m not sure he’s drawn the right lessons from it.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/19/2016 - 10:34 am.

    But, come on, Eric

    Most of us know that political convention speeches have one purpose: to arouse the faithful. Making more of this than that is just silly.

    If a significant share of anyone’s electorate cared much about these exhortations, far more people would watch these circus spectacles. Does anyone really care if Tom Cotton has drawn personal lessons from his service, those you wish him to draw? That’s pretty oblique.

    On the whole, I find today’s piece rather snarky, particularly in reference to Melania Trump: “The keynote speaker, Melania Trump, is very lovely and she read a very boring, almost generic speech, but she read it in English, which is not her native language, so good for her.” [She speaks 5 languages, I understand.]

    Wow, Eric! If I submitted your words as my comment, no MinnPost moderator would ever approve it.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/19/2016 - 04:08 pm.

      Since she grew up

      in what was then Jugoslavia, speaking multiple languages (at least at a basic level) was a virtual necessity.
      Given her obvious assets, a certain amount of snark is inevitable. A good choice for a wife is not necessarily a good choice for a political convention speaker.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 07/19/2016 - 07:10 pm.


        The spousal address has become pro forma for these conventions. I think far too much is made of its importance. In any case, we shouldn’t denigrate Melania Trump’s abilities simply because she’s married to the Donald. This was likely not part of their pre-nup.

        In any case, I also believe a multi-lingual First Lady would be a national asset these days on the international relations front, particular with respect to Europe and particularly with respect to a Pres. Trump. I cannot recall any former First Lady who spoke more than one language other than English–French in one case, Spanish in another, I believe.

        I was just thinking how old Nikita K. might have better handled the Disneyland rebuff had Pat Nixon been able to explain it all to Mrs. K.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/19/2016 - 11:23 am.

    Well, Mr. Cotton should get Congress to fulfill their Constitutional duty and issue a real declaration of war if he thinks a real war is necessary. It would make interesting reading.

    Meanwhile, it’s all hand-waving and mouth-flapping

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/19/2016 - 11:41 am.

    No. It’s a fair article.

    You want snark? Try reading the New Yorker article on Melania Trump, from a few weeks ago. It’s so clever, like all good satire, that some people will read it and not realize how devastating its portrait of her is. Of course, if you read her speech from last night, you see exactly what the New Yorker article was getting at. (It’s like Trump’s own speeches: lots of empty verbiage, with simple-sentence assertions–not reasoning–repeated again and again.)

    Cotton’s speech is typical of what people call mainstream or establishment Republican defenses of their view of the world. For the most part, he just claims that only Republicans love freedom, God, and their families (yawn). But he also does what Eric points out: he denies history, and distorts it to blame a war-stopper for starting the wars. He wants us all to forget the fraudulent reasons for the Iraq invasion and who initiated it, pushed it, and then turned his back on the results. That was W.

  4. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/19/2016 - 02:01 pm.

    Nothing here to vote for

    Trump’s VP roll out was 80% about Trump. When Trump and Pence were interviewed by Leslie Stahl her questions to Pence were answered by Trump. Pence running around the country proclaiming Trump is a good man will be one of Pence’s main duties as VP. Pence won’t be assigned any work that will benefit the entire country. His secondary role will be to continue the GOP’s social engineering plan with regards to LGBT’s, abortion, and pay equity. These are items that he is a longtime warrior against. Pence is loaded with his own brand of Republicanism baggage. He is liked by less than half of the residents of Indiana which he governs. Pence’s stance on some issues is in conflict with Trump’s. Trump’s okay with Pence’s vote for the Iraq war but not Hillary’s vote makes Trump very inconsistent. They are truly the odd couple.
    The Republican National Convention is nothing more than throwing red meat to party faithful when it is the undecided that they need to convert. It turns out not everyone is that faithful to Trump. Witness the chaos on the floor of the convention yesterday.
    Trumps campaign has the same amount of viable content as John McCain’s campaign had. McCain suspended his campaign to go to Washington and help with the financial crisis. Turned out he had nothing, just as Trump has nothing. I still don’t have any idea what Trump is for.
    Highlights of the first day of the RNC convention were chaos, fear and war mongering, plagiarism and Trump’s grand entry. The Trump talking heads are having a hard time defending the plagiarism charges when 99% of the words came directly from the mouth of Michelle Obama. I don’t blame Melania as she is just a puppet sent out on stage to read someone else’s words. I blame Trump and his crew for putting her in that shameful situation. The GOP can start their next election autopsy right now.
    Who started the Iraq was has long since been eradicated from the GOP minds. They are in total denial when it comes to any memories of George W. Bush and the disasters he brought to America. The GOP has trouble with anyone who doesn’t fight wars in the GOP style of sacrificing our blood and treasure to justify their misguided beliefs, even though those beliefs are based on false conclusions. You could feel the strong mongering for war with General Flynn and Tom Cotton’s presentations.
    Day 1 fact checking led to some true statements but overwhelmingly misleading or outright false statements in the GOP tradition. I will give them credit, either they didn’t say it or I missed it, the GOP bread and butter line, “In the tradition of Ronald Reagon.” I guess Ronnie has finally died.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/19/2016 - 01:23 pm.

    Like most people

    …I’ve never been in combat. Apparently, Mr. Cotton did see some combat with the 101st Airborne (according to the Wikipedia article) in Iraq, but was a non-combat staff officer in Afghanistan. While his military service is admirable, it doesn’t make him an expert in matters of strategy, though he surely knows more about on-the-ground tactics than I do. Thus, I’m willing to cede his expertise on how to take out a heavy machine-gun position or hunt down who’s been sending RPG’s his way. I’m not at all willing to cede to Mr. Cotton the rationale(s) and goals for this country going to war. Unless he was pretty high up in the hierarchy, and I don’t think the rank of Captain qualifies, he wasn’t privy to the reasons why we got involved in either war, nor why deployments of American troops took place the way they did, nor is he significantly more qualified than anyone else who reads the news to decide if we “won” either war.

    “The last Republican Vice-President,” Dick Cheney, publicly outed/revealed the name of an active covert CIA agent, an action much, much closer to actual treason than Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was serving as Secretary of State. Had it been done by a Democrat, given the current political climate, I feel certain that Democrat would be out of office and quite possibly serving time in prison. I’d argue that, instead of being held up as some sort of model of service to America, Mr. Cheney should have been forced to resign, and should himself be in prison. Cheney is the antithesis of a patriot.

    Mr. Cotton, especially since he’s apparently going to base his credibility on his military service, should know better than most of us that soldiers do not fight and die to defend “freedom.” They may talk about it in those terms once they’re no longer “in country,” or are otherwise safely out of harm’s way, but when the bullets start flying, they get involved because they’re ordered to, and more often than not, to protect themselves and their fellow soldiers from harm – or to get revenge for injuries or deaths among their combat buddies. Civilians talk about abstract political theories, not soldiers.

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 07/19/2016 - 02:26 pm.

    “Invading Iraq Was a Mistake” . . .

    At least that what NY Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat (with co-writer Reihan Salam in July 17 Sunday Review) thinks that Republican leaders should finally admit to to avoid future Trumps and future quagmires. Trump’s “America First” position sounds like more of retreat from these ventures in the future. To “Make America Safe” means disentangling from foreign alliances. (More George Washington). Cotton’s speech seems to try to square the circle by rewriting the past in order to blame the despised HRC and Obama. I’m guessing his speech was some sort of concession to Republican leadership by Trump for getting (???). Douthat and Salam seem to think that the voters who propelled Trump to his nomination are fed up with Republican leadership who got into those quagmires, one of which Cotton served in.

  7. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/19/2016 - 07:07 pm.

    Could we possibly give Melania Trump a break here,

    …or is it just too much to let go an opportunity for pettiness??

    “I gather there are several phrases and word choices that appear to have been lifted from a speech given by Michelle Obama in 2008, but I don’t really care. We have much bigger concerns this year than whether Melania is a plagiarist. Team Trump says she wrote the speech herself; color me skeptical, but I really don’t care.”

    If you really didn’t care, Eric, you’d have said nothing rather than underscore it 3 times.

    Melania Trump is absolutely of no significance to her husband’s political campaign nor his presidency, if elected.

    You might be more careful or you’ll prevent Mr. Trump’s campaign from collapsing on its own merits through drawing attention to meaningless trivia – and speculations on meaningless trivia.

    This whole campaign, its candidates, and the commentariat have fashioned a heartbreaking descent to the lowest common denominator: ridicule.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/20/2016 - 12:32 pm.

      Would we have given Michelle Obama such a “break”?

      Melania Trump plagiarized more than a few words of Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech–she lifted the ideas, the topics, the structure, and the phrasing of multiple sentences straight from Michelle Obama’s speech. Verbatim.

      No one would have given Michelle Obama the slightest “break” if it had been she who plagiarized someone. After all, Michelle Obama is Ivy-league trained and an attorney, she’s articulate, urbana, knowledgeable about many topics, elegant, and beautiful to boot. We have a direct opposite–all but the beautiful part–in Melania Trump. I’m not about to give a former supermodel a “break” here, when I never would have let a blatant plagiarism like this get a grade in one of my courses at the U of MN.

      We are supposed to let Melania Trump off the hook for bald plagiarism just because she’s not well-educated or articulate or much of anything but physically attractive? She’ s trying out to be First Lady, for Pete’s sake! It matters.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/25/2016 - 12:52 pm.

      Yeah, but..

      If Melania had written that speech all by herself and without any review, it might have been simply a matter of eyerolling and ignoring the snafu. But, since it’s very unlikely she wrote the speech, let alone in any sort of vacuum, it actually is an insight into the Trump machine. It’s disorganized in any recognizable way and, importantly, lacking in moral compass. If not a theft of copyright, it’s plagiarism, a big moral no-no in front of the “moral” party. And yet, the “moral” party leadership and cat herders are defending it by claiming that even Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony said something vaguely similar (it wasn’t, but watch said defense for a good giggle: Dangerously, it also indicates that the Trump machine has carefully calculated just how little the base is going to think about this in any real way. And it would seem their calculations are accurate. Combined with the rabid lapping up of “I alone can fix it”, we should be terrified. God help us all if he’s got enough support in November.

  8. Submitted by David Fisher on 07/19/2016 - 11:42 pm.

    Cotton Speach

    Right on, Eric. I saw Sen. Cotton make his remarks and could only think about how naïve and truncated his statements seemed. You have put it in its rightful place.

  9. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/20/2016 - 10:32 am.

    “…of winning wars and not merely ending wars.”

    If only they could be ended.

    The wars we began in Iraq and Afghanistan set forces in motion which continue and even expand beyond the limits of the circle we draw around “war”. The refugee crisis appears to have arisen indirectly from those wars, for example.

    Mr. Cotton has a belief that these wars could be “won”. The truth is that once we set them in motion, they are out of our control. The idea of “winning” is a delusion.

    The American public should rightly be extremely reluctant to buy any further pursuit of these delusions manifested in foreign adventures.

    In spite of all the bombast, we can’t know what a Trump policy would be, making him a very risky choice. It is pretty clear that Clinton will re-invest in previously failed dreams of conquest and control – to which she contributed – making her an even riskier choice, if that’s possible.

    In terms of war policy, there is no good vote in this election. There is too much at stake to rely on choosing “the devil we DON’T know” (Trump) over “the devil we know” (Clinton).

    It’s time to stop ameliorating these disastrous wars as mere “mistakes” and state clearly they have damaged our fundamental national interests in a serious way.

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