Representative Tom Cotton (R-AR) delivered the keynote address today at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) where he discussed the new threats that the U.S. faces from Al Qaeda and radical Islam. The first-term Congressman is a rising star in the Republican ranks and is challenging Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) for his seat in 2014. His resume is even more impressive: graduate of Harvard University undergrad and law school, clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals and time at McKinsey & Co. But what Cotton values most, and talks about frequently, is his time in the Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s how Cotton began today’s speech as well.
“For much of 2006, I patrolled the streets of Baghdad as a platoon leader with the 101st airborne,” he said. “My soldiers and I knew in a very concrete and personal way that we needed more troops and we needed a new strategy, even if few of us could articulate what it might be.”
Cotton praised AEI for the organization’s contributions to the Iraq Surge and then shifted from talking about his military background to the main theme of his speech: the growing threat of Al Qaeda.
“To put it simply, Al Qaeda today remains a great threat that too many policymakers misunderstand and want to wish away,” he said. “We have to recognize and understand this threat before we can defeat it. And we need to have strength and confidence to fight Al Qaeda using all the tools and resources that have proven to work over the years,”
Before 9/11, few people were aware of the threat Al Qaeda posed to the United States, he said. Afterwards, that quickly changed as the U.S. joined the war against radical Islam. Cotton emphasized that the U.S. joined the war, which radical Islam had started decades earlier. It had taken the United State an event as tragic as 9/11 to get it to stand up and fight, despite repeated terrorist attacks during the 1990s. Cotton worried that a similar complacency and disregard for Al Qaeda was setting in on both lawmakers and the American people in recent years.
“Regrettably, too many Americans believe that the threat from Al Qaeda ended in 2011 with the killing of Osama Bin Laden,” he said. “And too many policymakers in Washington want to believe that these terrorist groups aren’t affiliated with each other or what might be called Core Al Qaeda.”
Cotton stressed that Al Qaeda has grown in strength over the past four years due to the Obama Administration’s neglect for counterterrorism policies. For years, the U.S. military had kept Al Qaeda in a defensive position, pushing them into the hills of Afghanistan where it was near impossible to coordinate a terrorist attack. The United States was the “strong horse” and Al Qaeda the weak, he said.
In recent years though, Al Qaeda has resurged in unstable regions throughout the Middle East. It is no longer a centralized organization, but a network of groups that are increasingly looking at the United States as the “weak horse,” not the strong. Cotton declared his support for many of the counterterrorism strategies that the United States has used over the past decade including drone strikes, indefinite detention and interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the National Security Agency’s surveillance methods. He denounced sequestration’s defense cuts, arguing that “the consequences will be historic – and not in a good way.”
All of these things have altered the balance in the War on Terror, Cotton said. In particular, he criticized President Obama for failing to support the moderate groups in Syria years ago, leading to the messy situation that exists there today.* He emphasized that the Obama Administration has not shown the will and confidence to continue to fight Al Qaeda and that this indifference has begun switching the balance of power so that the United States looks more and more like the “weak horse.”
“In the end, the key trait of the strong horse is the will to win,” he concluded. “Our enemies still have the will to win. America had the will to win for a long time and I believe most Americans still do have the will to win. I know that our troops and intelligence professionals do. But I do worry that many of our elected leaders do not and that is dangerous, because in the end, the strong horse does win.”
*Cotton published an op-ed with Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KA) supporting Obama’s plan for Syria a week ago.