Scarlet (With Embarrassment) Letter

I’d say the document known as the Cotton Letter (though the appellation may be letting the other 46 signatories, not to mention the non-Senatorial presidential candidates clamoring to sign on, off the hook) is becoming one of the firmer entries in this year’s “seemed like a good idea at the time” list of big political mistakes. Even as the rationalizations and the back-peddling continue, Jonathan Chait skewers the letter as being not just a conservative error, but a characteristically neoconservative error, and even worse yet, a characteristic Bill Kristol error.

Senator Tom Cotton, whose letter warning Iran that any nuclear deal will not last beyond the term of the Obama administration was signed by 47 Republican Senators, is the future of neoconservatism. His career has been nurtured from the outset by old-line neoconservatives like William Kristol, who turns out, unsurprisingly, to have “consulted” with Cotton on the idea. And the Iran letter turns out to be a perfect little synecdoche of neoconservative policy.

The letter episode contains all the characteristic traits of a neoconservative project. First, of course, is the wild confrontationalism, which in this case was directed not against Iran but against the Obama administration. It may not be treason for the Senate to undermine the president’s negotiations with a foreign power, but it surely represents the bluntest and most hostile possible exercise of opposition to the executive branch’s strategy. Kristol’s advice in any situation, domestic or foreign, is for his side to display maximum belligerence, and the Cotton letter reflected that impulse.

Second, the letter was drafted and signed with maximum haste and a total contempt for planning or serious thought of any kind. “It was kind of a very rapid process. Everybody was looking forward to getting out of town because of the snowstorm,” confessed John McCain. “Many of the 47 signatories reasoned that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s endorsement was vetting enough,” notes former Bush administration speechwriter Michael Gerson, disgustedly. “There was no caucus-wide debate about strategy; no consultation with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has studiously followed the nuclear talks (and who refused to sign).” Most people who signed on did so because they assumed somebody else had thought through the details. It was the Iraq invasion of foreign-policy maneuvers.

Third, the ploy has failed even by the standards of its own logic….

The partisanship of the letter undermines the prospects of any additional Democrats giving the Iran sanctions bill the veto-proof majority it needs. And if Iran does walk away from negotiations, it will argue that negotiations were sabotaged by Republican ultrahawks, not its own recalcitrance. That would make the international cooperation required for effective sanctions even harder to round up.

Quite the mess, eh? But as Chait points out with amusement, the final clincher in his argument that this is a neoconservative “fiasco” of classic dimensions is that the neocon chorus, led by Kristol, is spinning the episode as a magnificent triumph.

But the passage of the Cotton Letter into neocon legend will only become complete when its author (not Kristol, but Cotton!) runs for president in 2020 or 2024 or whenever it is. Then it will be changed from a Scarlet (with embarrassment) Letter to a Red Badge of Courage.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.