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

Sen. Tom Cotton’s RNC 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.

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

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.