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Senator Tom Cotton Previews The State Of The Union

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The transcript:

HH: Joined by United States Senator Tom Cotton, who will be, I assume, in the audience tomorrow night for the State of the Union. Are you going to the State of the Union tomorrow night, Senator?

TC: I will be there tomorrow night, Hugh.

HH: And are you taking your wonderful wife? Or is she staying home with the baby?

TC: She’s going to be home with little Gabriel.

HH: Okay, so I was going to say, you could put Gabriel to sleep, though. I’m pretty certain that if you took Gabriel to the State of the Union tomorrow, he would sleep.

TC: I’m pretty sure he would sleep. Or he might cry.

HH: (laughing) What do you expect to hear out of the lame duck president’s last State of the Union?

TC: I don’t know what to expect, Hugh. Based on some media reports, it sounds as if the President’s going to try to put a positive gloss on his last seven years. I think that’s going to be hard to do. If you look around the world, the United States’ position has been collapsing everywhere. Allies no longer trust us, our adversaries no longer fear us. If you look at countries like Syria and Iraq and Iran, you see the smoking ruins of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. And if you look here at the United States, pretty much everything that Republicans predicted about Obamacare has come to pass. People have lost their health insurance, premiums have gone up, deductibles and co-pays have gone up. Hardly any part of it has worked as the President predicted, but as Republicans had promised. So it’s going to be tough for him to put a positive gloss on his record tomorrow night, but I expect he probably will try.

HH: Coming up after the break, I’m talking with Bret Stephens, who I think you will agree with me may be our most perceptive writer on foreign affairs in America today on a weekly basis. And I’m going to put forward the proposition to Bret that we’re at a uniquely opportunistic moment, unique moment of opportunity. Egypt, Jordan, President Sisi, King Abdullah, King Salman in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Israel all have an alignment of interest, that if we only had someone with talent, could actually work in our favor. Do you agree with that assessment?

TC: Those countries certainly have come into alignment with United States policy, to maybe a greater extent than ever. Maybe the one accomplishment President Obama could tout for his foreign policy tomorrow night is the fact more than any president ever, he’s been able to bring Israel and Saudi Arabia closer together.

HH: (laughing) Yeah, who would’ve guessed?

TC: Unfortunately, he’s only done so by conciliating with Iran so much, a mortal enemy of both those countries. I think if you look at what’s happened in the first ten days of this year, it’s an indictment of President Obama’s foreign policy. Saudi Arabia had an execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, who many people think might have been backed by the Iranian regime. Iran invaded Saudi Arabia’s embassy. That seems to be their go-to move whenever they feel emboldened, given what they did 37 years ago at our embassy. And now you have not just Saudi Arabia’s traditional allies like Kuwait and Bahrain and the UAE cutting off diplomatic relationships with Iran, but also countries like Qatar and Turkey, countries that had tried to create an alternative Sunni axis of power to Saudi Arabia over the last few years. So it really is overcoming all of the other divisions within the Middle East, and intensifying the sectarian conflict you see between Sunni states, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the Shiite axis, led by Iran.

HH: Now you’ve got tomorrow night, a president with an opportunity to talk about the military forces. We have a new commander of Centcom, and new commander of Special Forces, a new generation, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Do you think there’s a chance that he might pull a Carter in his last year and actually, Jimmy Carter upped spending, upped morale, upped attentions of the Department of Defense? Do you see any of that?

TC: No, I see no indication from the President that he plans to change course.

HH: Wow.

TC: The President has consistently said that he has a communications problem. In general, when a politician says he has a communications problem, what he has is a reality problem. This president doesn’t want to face up to the reality of the failures of his foreign policy. The Department of Defense does have a new set of leaders, starting with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joe Dunford, down to some of the combatant commands and service chiefs that you mentioned. By and large, those leaders are very good, certainly more than we should have expected from President Obama. They’ll be around after President Obama has departed as well. Hopefully, they’ll be able to steady the ship somewhat over the next 12 months, and then with a new president, begin to rebuild our military. But I don’t expect this president to change course.

HH: Are you happy with the Republican debate in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere? Is it significantly serious and focused as you would want?

TC: Hugh, I can’t say I’m following it too closely, given the work that I have to do in Washington for Arkansas and for our country. That said, it seems to be a lot more substantive than what the Democrats have going on. You know, our debates, I’ve noticed, have 28-30 million people watching during prime time on weeknights. I think the last Democratic debate was at 4:00 AM on New Year’s Eve in the morning. But despite all that, I noticed that Bernie Sander is continuing to pull ahead of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, and get close in Iowa.

HH: The numbers are kind of stunning. Now he’s your colleague. Do you talk to Bernie Sanders much? I mean, if you could talk about two more different people, it’s Bernie Sanders and Tom Cotton.

TC: I have exchanged a few pleasantries with him, but you know, frankly, he and the four Republicans who have been running for president have been off campaigning a lot, so I haven’t had a chance to get to know any of them very well. It’s very hard work being out campaigning for president. But it is pretty remarkable that Hillary Clinton, with all the advantages she had coming into this race, is struggling to overcome an openly avowed socialist.

HH: Yeah.

TC: Bernie Sanders is a socialist, and he probably claims as much. Yet he’s leading in New Hampshire, and he’s closing rapidly in Iowa.

HH: Now I’m wondering as well, are you going to see the movie, 13 Hours?

TC: Yes, in fact, I’m going to the premiere this Friday.

HH: And I’ve already seen it, and I will tell you it’s riveting. It’s extraordinarily accurate in its details, I understand, because they recreated not only the State Department facility, but the CIA annex right down to the details of the ladders that they used. And I’m sure, but I got asked a funny question. You’ll find this funny. I got called by USA Today yesterday to ask if I thought John Krasinski, the lead, played a good Special Operator. How much would I know about that, Tom Cotton? I said why don’t you ask me if he used a ketchup bottle? They asked me if he used his machine gun the right way. I said why don’t you ask me if he held a ketchup bottle the right way. Do you think Hollywood can get this right?

TC: I’ll give you a review of the movie next week when I’m on with you, Hugh, after seeing it on Friday. You know, the best thing that Hollywood does is Hollywood, so you know, movies like Get Shorty, or shows like Entourage. They don’t do so well when it comes to the military or politics or business. But I do believe that some of the CIA contractors who were involved in the firefight in Benghazi were actually consultants on the movie.

HH: Yeah.

TC: So I’m certainly hopeful…

HH: All five of them were.

TC: Okay, so I’m certainly hopeful that they were accurate down to the details. These things are not, you know, how you fire a machine gun is not hard to get right. I have half a dozen people on my staff, including myself, who could tell you that.

HH: Who could say it? I can’t.

TC: Hopefully, Michael Bay, knowing that, relied heavily on their advice.

HH: Well, what was very interesting was the chaos, that we would put these people into the chaos that was Libya. I mean, I know Iraq, where you served, was pretty chaotic. But at the same time, we had a functioning government. Libya didn’t have a functioning government, and they put a whole bunch of Americans in the middle of chaos.

TC: It was a very chaotic situation, and especially that night. I remember a senior Obama administration official said at the time when explaining why CIA contractors weren’t allowed to go sooner to the source of the firefight, or why the military didn’t deploy more rapidly that night, is that we don’t send our troops into uncertain situations. And when I heard that, I thought gosh, I wish someone had told my battalion commander in Iraq that, because that is in fact the very opposite of what…

HH: I shouldn’t laugh. That is very funny, though.

TC: But it’s the very opposite of what our troops do almost every day when they are in a war zone.

HH: Right.

TC: …like Afghanistan or Iraq, or in that case, in Libya.

HH: Or in your case, Baghdad.

TC: Yeah, and the other thing I would say, too, about that night, is we now know that most military assets were probably too far away to actually get into the fight and influence it. But you couldn’t know that at the time it was happening. Dozens and dozens of times during my period in Baghdad in 2006, when my platoon was on the quick reaction force to respond to any firefights out in our area of operations, we got the notice to go on alert. We spun up. We prepared to go out. And by the time we got outside the war, or even before then, the enemy had broken contacted, so we were no longer needed. But you don’t know, and that’s the case. You don’t know if a firefight’s going to last 20 minutes or 20 hours.

HH: Your friend, Mike Pompeo, was on the show, and he had just finished talking to former General David Petraeus for two and a half hours, and he’s got to come back. And he can’t talk to me about what the House Benghazi Committee did, but I asked him that question about assets, and he said that’s what we’re looking into, is what was where and what could have gotten there. Would we have ever used a foreign power, do you think, to help us? If the Israelis had offered to help us, or if anybody had offered to help us, would we ever use a foreign power to extricate CIA people?

TC: It’s certainly something we would do in principle, not just in Libya, but elsewhere around the world. We have a lot of allies, thankfully, and those allies sometimes have unique assets, or they have unique access or physical locations that can be of assistance to our military, our diplomats, our intelligence professionals. You’d prefer to rely on American assets, but if necessary, we have many allies who are willing to come to our assistance in various circumstances. I don’t know the circumstances of that evening, though. I’m sure that Mike Pompeo and Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the Select Committee, are exploring it, thought.

HH: And a general question about your time in Iraq, what 13 Hours communicates is the chaos of non-regulars operating as militias, and being able to identify people as friend or foe. And it’s a recurring theme of the movie that you don’t know who is who, or who is with who. Is that the situation in Baghdad, 2006? We’ve got a minute, Senator Cotton.

TC: In counterinsurgency warfare, it is often very hard to identify friend from foe. You know, you don’t have enemy soldiers wearing uniforms in mass formations. Once they start shooting at you, though, it’s a pretty obvious identification of who’s friend and who’s foe, or at least who’s foe. But the situation in Libya, as you say, Hugh, having seen the movie, was extraordinarily chaotic. It was chaotic as probably anything that we saw when I was in Baghdad.

HH: Wow, I can’t wait to talk with you next week after you’ve seen the movie. I’ll be watching to make sure you don’t fall asleep tomorrow night, Senator Cotton. I’m on ABC News afterwards. If you fall asleep, I’m calling you out on national television, so sit up straight and be attentive.

End of interview.


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