Cotton: Russian Role in Syria 'Near Catastrophe' for U.S.

Cotton: Russian Role in Syria 'Near Catastrophe' for U.S.
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Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said Thursday that Russia’s launching of airstrikes in Syria represented “maybe the worst” day in 6½ years of President Obama’s foreign policy.

On Wednesday, Russia began conducting airstrikes in that war-torn nation, claiming its targets were ISIS strongholds. But according to news reports, many U.S. officials believe that opponents of the terror group were targeted. Cotton, speaking at an event hosted by RealClearPolitics Thursday morning, said Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Syria not to fight ISIS but to “prop up” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He criticized Obama for inaction during the long civil war in Syria, saying that it created the opening for Putin to act.

“I think this is a near catastrophe for U.S. foreign policy in the region and really around the world,” the Arkansas Republican said, adding that it goes against a longtime bipartisan understanding that Russia should not be a powerbroker in the Middle East.

“Of all the bad days that we’ve seen for America’s interests over the last six years and nine months under Barack Obama’s foreign policy, maybe yesterday is the worst going forward for the future,” Cotton said.

During his short political career – just nine months in the Senate after two years in the House – the veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has established himself as a leading GOP voice on foreign policy issues. During the wide-ranging discussion Thursday, Cotton criticized the lack of budgeting for the military under sequestration, applauded the pair of women who recently completed Army Ranger school, criticized the Iranian nuclear agreement and lamented what he considers a deficit in training for American troops.

A significant portion of the event focused on the recent actions of Russia in Syria. Cotton asserted that Putin’s ultimate goal is to weaken the bonds of the European Union and NATO, and that he is using the Syrian war and the refugee crisis born from it as a means to do so. The more Putin fans the flames of the war, Cotton argued, the greater the refugee crisis could become. The flood of refugees into Europe in recent weeks has been problematic for a continent unprepared to handle such an influx.

“Vladimir Putin is achieving his goals right now in Syria simply because he was willing to act,” Cotton said. “We’re not achieving our goals because we have been paralyzed in inaction over the past 4½ years.”

The recent escalation of tensions between the United States and Russia has many pointing to the presidential election of 2012, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney said Russia was America’s greatest geopolitical foe, a comment met with derision by many Democrats. Obama himself famously said during a debate with Romney that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

Noting that that from a certain perspective, Romney was right in his assessment, Cotton turned Obama’s chastisement back on the commander-in-chief.

“I would tell President Obama the 1930s are calling and they want their foreign policy back now,” he said, a reference to appeasement stances of some leaders toward Nazi aggression during the 1930s.

Cotton also greatly criticized military funding over the past several years under the strict spending caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act, saying that “severe damage” had been done to military preparedness. He said he’s concerned that members of the armed services aren’t getting the training they need because of inadequate funding, suggesting that there should be up to a $100 billion increase in military spending. Cotton voted against the 10-week stopgap funding measure signed into law Wednesday because it lacked enough money for defense.  

Cotton also spoke about the Iran nuclear deal, the issue that thrust him to the forefront of the foreign policy debate when he penned an open letter to Iranian leaders criticizing the agreement then being forged and pointing out that the next president could undo it. On Thursday, he said that the deal faces a “gut check” moment in the coming months when the International Atomic Energy Agency releases a report based on inspections of Iranian facilities. After the report, he said Obama would face the difficult decision of whether to allow sanctions relief for Iran. 

“That’s a moment to have a real gut check for Barack Obama and the other Western leaders who negotiated this deal about whether they’re going to live up to their own rhetoric about holding Iran to their obligations,” Cotton said.

Since he jumped onto the national stage with his Iran letter, Cotton has often been mentioned as someone with a bright future in the party and as a potential vice presidential pick in 2016. He co-wrote an op-ed in March with presidential contender and fellow senator Marco Rubio on the need for increased defense spending. On Thursday, he was asked whether Rubio is his preference for the Republican nomination.

“No, no, I strongly support Bernie Sanders,” Cotton deadpanned. He then mentioned a budget amendment he and Rubio co-authored to increase defense spending. Asked whether the bill would have been dubbed Rubio-Cotton, and whether that might foreshadow a presidential ticket, Cotton again joked, “Cotton-Rubio. Alphabetical order.” 

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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