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Tom Cotton

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A new cabinet will mark neocon ascendancy
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Back during the admittedly brief shock and awe period that immediately followed on the Trump electoral victory, it appeared that there might be an actual realignment of American foreign policy. The neoconservatives virtually unanimously had opposed Donald Trump in the most vile terms, both in the GOP primaries and during the actual electoral campaign, making clear that Hillary was their choice for a future full of unrelenting, ideologically driven warfare to convert the world to democracy. By that metric, one would assume that Trump would prefer to be roasted on a spit rather than have neocons on his national security team, and many in the punditry did agree with that analysis and went on to share that view.

At the time, I agreed, but I did note that the neoconservatives have proven to be remarkable resilient, particularly as many of them have remained true to their Democratic Party values on nearly everything but foreign policy, where they are irredeemable hawks, hostile to Russia and Iran and always reliably in the corner of Israel. In short, many neocons can be unmasked as Hillary Clinton Democrats if one looks at them issue by issue, which certainly helps to explain some subsequent developments.

Some Washington observers who actually care about such things have been writing how there has been a kumbaya process going on between self-described conservative neocons and liberal interventionists. Katrina vanden Heuvel describes the progressive hawks as “the essential-country crowd,” borrowing a phrase from ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

There are inevitably minor disconnects between the two groups based on their motives for aggression – Democrats claim to do it to bring democracy and freedom while Republicans say they do it to enhance national security. Both are lying in any event as it all comes down to great power rivalries, with big powerful nations pushing smaller weaker nations around because they are able to get away with it and feel more comfortable if everyone lines up behind them.

So everyone in Washington and New York’s financial services industry agrees that a more assertive America is a better America even when the reality is that no one winds up with either democracy or security. Which brings us to the latest shuffle in the Donald Trump cabinet and what it is likely to mean down the road. Multiple sources are predicting Tillerson out and Mike Pompeo in at State Department with Pompeo replaced at CIA by Senator Tom Cotton. The White House is denying the story, calling it “fake news,” but it is clear that Trump is uncomfortable with the current arrangement and Tillerson will be gone sooner or later.

Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State replaces a somewhat bumbling businessman adept at dealing in energy futures contracts who has been struggling with reducing State’s enormously bloated payroll. Pompeo, a real hard-nosed political hardliner who tends to see complex issues in fairly simplistic ways, has become a presidential confidant, briefing Trump frequently on the state of the world, most recently pushing for the horrific decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In a recent speech , Pompeo criticized the CIA, observing that it had both forgotten how to spy, which is almost certainly true, while adding that it will have to become “more vicious” to accomplish its mission of making the United States “safe.” Pompeo would like to turn the United States into an unleashed wrecking ball directed against the enemies of the American Way and he appears intent on starting that process in the Middle East.

And Pompeo will be replaced as CIA Director by Tom Cotton. The less said about Tom the better, but I will attempt to summarize in 8 words here: Tom is completely owned by the Israel Lobby. In his 2014 election as junior Senator from Arkansas, he received $1 million from the Emergency Committee for Israel headed by Bill Kristol as well as additional assistance from the Republican Jewish Coalition. In March 2015, Tom paid those supporters back when 47 Republican United States Senators signed a letter allegedly written by him that was then sent to the Iranian government directly, warning that any agreement over that country’s nuclear program reached with President Barack Obama would likely be overturned by the Congress. The letter, which undercuts the authority of the American president before an international audience, was signed by the entire Republican Party leadership in the Senate and also included then presidential contenders Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

I do not wish to imply that Cotton and Pompeo are somehow stupid, but they do tend to see the world in a very monochromatic fashion, just like their boss. Pompeo was first in his class at West Point and Cotton graduated from Harvard as an undergrad and also from the Law School. Trump claims to be the smartest person in the room no matter where he is standing. But for all the academic credentials and other posturing, it is hard to imagine how the new choices could possibly be worse from a common-sense perspective unless one includes Nikki Haley, who is, fortunately, otherwise engaged. Haley really is stupid. And ambitious. And is also owned by the Israel Lobby, which appears to be a thread that runs its way through all the Trump foreign policy appointees.

What is wrong about the whole Trump team is that they all seem to believe that you can go around the world kicking the shit out of everyone without there being any consequences. And they all hate Iran for reasons that continue to be obscure but may be connected to their relationships with – you guessed it – the neoconservatives and the Israeli Lobby!

Yes, the neocons are back. I noted back in October that when Pompeo and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster wanted a friendly place to drop by to give a policy speech that would be warmly received they went to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), whose marketing masthead slogan is “Fighting Terrorism and Promoting Freedom.” FDD is currently neocon central, used like the American Enterprise Institute was when Dick Cheney was Vice President and needed a friendly audience. It is headed by Canadian Mark Dubowitz, whose passion in life is making sure that sanctions on Iran are enforced to the letter. Unfortunately, it is not easy to deport a Canadian.

Neocon watchers will undoubtedly note that big names like Brill Kristol, the Kagans, Michael Chertoff and Max Boot will not be showing up in government. True, but that is because they will instead be working through their foundations, of which FDD is only one. The Alliance for Securing Democracy, which has recently sprung up in lobby-land, markets itself as “bipartisan, and transatlantic…” but it actually is pure neocon. Its goal is to “expose Putin’s ongoing efforts to subvert democracy in the United States of America and Europe.” It includes the usual neocon names but also has the loyal Democratic opposition, including ex-CIA Acting Director Mike Morell and Jake Sullivan, both of whom were top level advisers to Hillary Clinton.

Millions dead costing trillions of dollars
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The admission by the White House that two western hostages were killed by an errant drone strike in Pakistan serves as only an ugly little footnote to what has been nearly fifteen years of undeclared war waged by Washington against a large part of the world. The New York Times notes that “…most individuals killed [by drones] are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names,” adding that “the proliferating mistakes have given drones a sinister reputation in Pakistan and Yemen and have provoked a powerful anti-American backlash in the Muslim world.”

The most recent ex-judicial killings come on the heels of a report by the highly respected Nobel prize winning Physicians for Social Responsibility that reveals that more than 1.3 million people were killed during the first ten years post 9/11 as part of the so-called “global war on terror” (GWOT) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan alone. The GWOT has been euphemized by the current Administration as “overseas contingency operations,” which has a nicer sound and does not appear to be so preemptive or premeditated. The relabeling also suggests that the process is both responsive and occasional, which it is not as it has been the driving component of American foreign policy since 2001 until the present day.

The report by the physicians received only limited coverage in the U.S. media. As one might reasonably add Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen to the carnage and update the numbers on Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan for all areas where the U.S. in engaged militarily the current total might easily exceed two million or more. The report stresses that the estimate of the dead is “conservative” based on the most reliable sources, suggesting that there are large numbers of deaths that have been reported but could not be confirmed.

To be sure not all of those millions of potential war on terror victims were killed by American bullets or bombs but their deaths are the consequence of ill-advised military interventions and operations to destabilize and replace existing governments, starting with the Taliban and continuing in the present with operations directed against Syria. Iran is the next intended target, one should reasonably presume.

American deaths represent only a tiny percentage of the overall toll, even if one includes the victims of 9/11, less than 10,000 total, which in no way should suggest that it diminishes the impact of those losses on individual families and communities. And the cost in dollars has also been devastating. Economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University has estimated that Iraq alone will cost over five trillion dollars before all the debts and legacy expenses relating to it are paid and that does not include the current re-engagement in that country by the U.S. military.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the killing of more than a million people and the spending of trillions of dollars has not made terrorism go away. On the contrary, it now threatens to take over the Arab heartland and metastasize into Europe and the United States after some of ISIS’s own volunteer “wounded warriors” return home. That is because the policies driving the American interventions have been effectively and consistently based on a number of misconceptions, most notably that it is possible to use force to remake in one’s own image ancient cultures that possess their own values and ways of doing things.

The unrelenting expansion of Washington’s military role is consequently little more than a simplistic response to many diverse overseas developments that are poorly understood, most of which are not actually genuine threats to the United States. This is demonstrated by the White House decision to extend the U.S. terrorism fight to the entire continent of Africa and also by the militarization of the ill-conceived campaign against Ebola, which was described as a “national security threat.”

Ironically, terrorism was clearly a dying profession, both literally and metaphorically before Washington stepped in recently to revive it. In 2011 terrorist attacks were down 12% from 2010 and 29% from 2007. Most attacks, and most victims, roughly 65%, came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Somalia, all war zones where security is poor. Engaged in conflicts that are frequently better describable as civil wars, the terrorist-designated groups bomb and execute their opponents and are on the receiving end of a corresponding government response as a consequence. Each shooting or bombing is therefore counted as a terrorist attack. Al-Qaeda, the gold-standard terrorist group, has long been in sharp decline, being upstaged by more radical groups like ISIS.

For me, the physicians’ report’s statistics revealing a pattern of worldwide carnage invites both horror and a cost/benefit analysis. Collateral damage that is killing civilians in the hundreds of thousands is hard to justify by any metric, but if a country is actually threatened with extinction there is at least an argument to be made. So the question must be asked, “Even given the current revival of terrorism in the Middle East, is the United States actually under siege by terrorism as reflected from the number of Americans who were actually victimized in 2013 (the most recent year when the the State Department has compiled the numbers)?” And “What is Washington spending and doing to deal with the threat? And why?”

Even when one includes all U.S. passport holders or permanent residents in the tally of those directly affected, the numbers are disappointing for those who have imagined a world awash with militants all of whom are seeking Americans to kill while simultaneously planning to travel to the United States so they can blow themselves up in Times Square. In 2013, only four Americans were killed by terrorists inside the United States, all by the Tsarnaev brothers as part of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. Only twelve American citizens were kidnapped by overseas terrorists in that year (11 in Libya, Syria and Nigeria, all of which were war zones), and only 16 were killed in foreign lands (12 in Afghanistan). Not to minimize in any way the horror of becoming a terrorist victim, the numbers are only 0.3% of all terror-related kidnappings and only 0.1% of terror-related killings. Most, possibly 97%, of people killed or kidnapped worldwide are Muslims targeted by indigenous groups that are fighting to change or take control of their own governments. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has determined that the number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks is comparable to the number crushed to death by falling television sets or furniture each year.

Money talks and even writes letters
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March 2015 is a month that should live in infamy. The month started out with the revolting spectacle of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a joint session of Congress for the third time, having been invited by the Speaker of the House without the courtesy of seeking any input from the White House or State Department. The National Review was quick to declare Bibi “leader of the free world,” surely one of the most ridiculous claims ever made by a once respectable magazine that has increasingly become a reliable mouthpiece for the Israel Lobby. It was all part of a carefully orchestrated deliberate affront to President Barack Obama, who like it or not, is responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs. It also challenged the White House’s role in dealing with visiting heads of state and government as a matter of both protocol and common sense, one of the traditional duties of the Chief Executive.

Netanyahu characteristically lied about the threat posed by Iran and was greeted by fifty rounds of applause for his lucidly expressed insights into why the United States should again be prepared to go to war on Israel’s behalf. Five days later 47 Republican United States Senators signed a letter allegedly written by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and then sent it to the Iranian government directly, warning that any agreement over that country’s nuclear program reached with President Barack Obama will likely be overturned by the Congress. The letter was signed by the entire Republican Party leadership in the Senate and also included presidential contenders Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Were the two events connected? You bet they were as they both had the same objective – to end talks with Iran and commit the United States to a more aggressive confrontation with the Mullahs, as Israel has been demanding.

The invitation and the letter were both unprecedented, far exceeding previous stunts by the ubiquitous GOP “maverick” Senator John McCain cavorting with terrorists in Syria or appearing in Tbilisi or at Maidan Square in Ukraine to instigate either a new war or a change of government. McCain’s hubris, as well as that of other peripatetic Congressmen prowling the world looking for an audience, was on display “over there” where he had no real authority and no one would listen to him anyway but the current incarnation of Republican leadership was and is, unfortunately, doing its damage over here.

The visit and letter were together an assault on how American democracy is supposed to work. Retired Major General Paul Eaton summed up the impact of the letter succinctly: “…to directly engage a foreign entity, in this way, undermining the strategy and work of our diplomats and our Commander in Chief, strains the very discipline and structure that our foreign relations depend on to succeed. The breach of discipline is extremely dangerous, because undermining our diplomatic efforts, at this moment, brings us another step closer to a very costly and perilous war with Iran. I think Senator Cotton recognizes this, and he simply does not care.”

The most significant damage is to the separation of powers under the Constitution of the United States. One might argue reasonably that executive authority has increased dramatically in Washington since 9/11 and should be rolled back by the legislature and judiciary. But the GOP is not addressing the issues that it should be confronting like war powers, immigration, state secrecy privilege, illegal spying and death by drone. It is instead seeking to challenge Article 2 of the Constitution, which specifies that the executive is the lead agency in dealing with foreign governments. The House of Representatives can choose to defund presidential programs and the Senate can refuse to “consent” to treaties that the executive has entered into, but the actual work of diplomacy and protecting Americans overseas is the responsibility of the president.

The presidential prerogative was accepted by the Founding Fathers and George Washington, in his first address to Congress made clear that while the legislative branch had responsibility for funding both diplomacy and an army, it was up to the executive branch to carry out policy in both areas. At the time, Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State. The Supreme Court has since several times upheld that perception, ruling that “foreign policy is the province and responsibility of the executive.”

And then there is the Logan Act, passed in 1799, which specifically declares it illegal for any citizen, including Congressmen, to engage in “any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government . . . with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government . . . in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.” The last indictment submitted under the Act was in 1803, which means that legal experts might well consider it to be unenforceable due to the judicial doctrine of desuetude, or lack of use, but the law is still on the books and one might reasonably argue that both the Netanyahu invitation and the Senate letter to the Iranian government would be considered felonious violations.

Leaving aside the damage that would be done to America’s reputation by repudiating an agreement hammered out not only with Iran but also with five other countries, there is a common thread running through the attempt by the Congress to assert control over some aspects of foreign policy and it is, of course, Israel. And there is also a back story. The Netanyahu visit was planned by the Israeli Ambassador in Washington Ron Dermer in collusion with Speaker of the House John Boehner. It was clearly intended to embarrass President Obama while also motivating the Congress and media to do everything possible to derail a possible agreement with Iran, which Netanyahu has been warning about since 1993. Netanyahu was also banking on his speech to shore up his credentials as a tough-talking guarantor of Israeli national security to include having Washington in his pocket. He hoped to benefit in the impending national elections, which are taking place today.

But Netanyahu may have received more blowback than benefits from his maneuvering with the U.S. Congress. His formulaic speech was heavily criticized even by Israel’s friends, damaging Tel Aviv’s relationship with the Democratic Party and possibly even dooming his chance for reelection due to the adverse reaction to the visit among Israelis.

And the letter to Iran’s appearance five days after the speech certainly hints at collusion and possibly more than that. It suggests that nearly half of the United States Senate, having received its marching orders from Netanyahu, was prepared to go forth and tighten the screws on Iran. The letter states, inaccurately, “that anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement [that] the next president could revoke…with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify…” It advises that “any unilateral executive agreement is one the [the Iranians] accept at their own peril.”

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: AIPAC, Bill Kristol, Israel Lobby, Tom Cotton 
Philip Giraldi
About Philip Giraldi

Phil Giraldi is a former CIA Case Officer and Army Intelligence Officer who spent twenty years overseas in Europe and the Middle East working terrorism cases. He holds a BA with honors from the University of Chicago and an MA and PhD in Modern History from the University of London. In addition to TAC, where he has been a contributing editor for nine years, he writes regularly for He is currently Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest and resides with his wife of 32 years in Virginia horse country close to his daughters and grandchildren.

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