Tom Cotton has distinguished himself as one of the worst Iran hawks in Congress over the years. He led the opposition to the nuclear deal, and went so far as to organize a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei telling the Iranian leader that there was no point in negotiating with the U.S. Cotton has been a vocal advocate for sabotaging the deal ever since, and he has supported every aggressive anti-Iranian move by the Trump administration over the last two and a half years. Earlier today, he did it again with a call for attacking Iran in response to their alleged responsibility for the recent tanker attacks:
If anything, we need to increase that pressure and I think this unprovoked attack on commercial shipping warrants retaliatory military strikes.
Cotton’s call for military strikes on Iran is crazy, and I hope that it is received that way by most of his colleagues and most Americans. It is still worth spelling out all the reasons why it makes no sense and why no one should ever listen to Cotton on matters of foreign policy. Start with Cotton’s assessment that Iran was behind the attacks. Iranian responsibility hasn’t been demonstrated to the satisfaction of most other governments, including the Japanese government. It was, after all, a Japanese-owned tanker that was hit in one of the latest attacks, so they have more of an interest in this incident than most. Nonetheless, Tokyo is not yet convinced by what the administration has presented. The same goes for many of our European allies. Most of our allies aren’t even willing to acknowledge that Iran committed the attacks, so they will be even less inclined to support U.S. military action.
If Iran is responsible for the attacks, they were not entirely unprovoked. When the U.S. wages relentless economic war on the country for more than a year, and continues to pile on more and more sanctions to strangle their economy, Iran is being provoked and pushed into a corner. One has to assume that goading Iran into a reaction is what many Iran hawks have been trying to do all along. If Iran did lash out, the fault lies in large part with the destructive Iran policy that created the current crisis. The smart response to this would be to dial back the pressure and look for a way to de-escalate tensions, but that assumes that the administration wants de-escalation. Obviously launching military strikes against Iranian targets would be the exact opposite of that. Cotton wants to increase the pressure on Iran, which he has to know will lead to more of these incidents. Launching military strikes will in turn provoke Iranian reprisals, and that will drag us into a spiral of escalation that will be a disaster for all concerned.
Cotton’s reassurances that this wouldn’t turn into a prolonged conflict are not convincing:
What I’m talking about is not like what we’ve seen in Iraq for the last 16 years or Afghanistan for the last 18 years.
Proponents of the invasion of Iraq sold the war on the promise that it would be easy, cheap, and quick, too, and here we are in 2019 with U.S. forces still in Iraq. Rumsfeld was famously quoted as saying that the war would last no more than five months. Cotton cannot promise that attacking Iran wouldn’t turn into another prolonged, bloody conflict that could potentially drag on for years, and hawks have pulled a fast one on the public too many times for us to believe anything they have to say about another unnecessary war now.
We know that many of the same hawks that are trying to sell us on a quick war today will be back in another few months to call for escalation and maybe even invasion when the initial strikes don’t “work” in forcing Iranian capitulation, because this is what they always do. First they make intervention seem cheap and easy to gain support, and then when things don’t go as planned and public opinion turns against them they insist that they can’t stop until we “finish the job,” and then when things go really wrong they say we have to “stay the course.” Even if war with Iran proved to be relatively shorter and less costly than some of the earlier debacles in this century, that doesn’t make it any less foolish, reckless, or wrong. War with Iran is totally unnecessary, and there is no reason that the U.S. should be risking such a war.
Contrary to Pompeo and Cotton’s wishcasting, the U.S. has no legal authorization to initiate hostilities against another state in response to alleged attacks on foreign oil tankers. The U.S. is not legally allowed to start wars against anyone for any reason. These attacks, assuming Iran is responsible, do not warrant military strikes, especially because they would not be retaliation for attacks on U.S. ships. If the U.S. did launch strikes on Iran, that would be a direct act of war in violation of international law and the U.N. Charter. The U.S. would be escalating a minor, manageable incident that has led to no loss of life into an international war that will cause the deaths of thousands and possibly tens of thousands of people. This would not just be excessive and stupid, but it would also be fundamentally wrong. It is unfortunate that Cotton’s proposal was not laughed out of the room for being the sick warmongering that it is.
Cotton tries to use Obama’s illegal war in Libya as cover for the obviously illegal military action he is selling:
Certainly, he- it would be in keeping with what President Obama did unwisely in Libya in 2011 in launching a weeks long campaign to overthrow the government there.
The fact that Obama illegally waged a war without Congressional authorization doesn’t give Trump the right to do so today. The Obama administration’s lie was that U.S. forces had not been introduced into hostilities because the Libyan government forces were unable to shoot back at them successfully. According to the slippery Harold Koh, the Libyan government’s inability to threaten our forces meant that they were not really engaged in hostilities even though they were regularly bombing Libya. No one could even try the same line of argument that U.S. forces aren’t being introduced into hostilities if U.S. forces launched attacks on Iran, not least because Iranian forces are more than capable of hitting and sinking our ships. The Libyan war was unconstitutional in addition to being bad policy, but even the Libyan war had some limited U.N. Security Council approval. There is no U.N. resolution fig leaf to cover naked aggression against Iran. Calling attention to the Libyan war wasn’t a very smart move for Cotton, since even that relatively “easy” campaign lasted eight months and sowed instability throughout the region for years to come. An attack on Iran would trigger a conflict that would last longer than that and cause a lot more upheaval at much greater cost to Iran, the U.S., and the region.
Cotton is one of the worst anti-Iranian fanatics in Washington. It isn’t surprising that he wants to exploit this crisis to get a war started. The sad and discouraging thing about this interview is that he is allowed to spread his bile over the airwaves without any effective pushback or criticism.