Tom Cotton is a rare member of Congress. He's one of just over a dozen who served on the front lines of either Iraq or Afghanistan, and one of just four in the Senate. The 39-year-old Harvard Law alumnus is also the upper chamber's youngest member.
For perspective, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch had been a senator for four months when Cotton was born in 1977, while the Senate's oldest member, 82-year-old California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, was already on her second marriage.
Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, nonetheless caught up quickly, and conveys a sense that he did so with ease.
Cotton's rhetorical dexterity in talking about issues ranging from Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea to geopolitics in the Middle East rivals the Senate's most senior members, and it has inspired widespread speculation about the value he could bring to the national Republican ticket as a candidate for vice president in November.
Yet Cotton has retained a sense of humility and a focus on an issue with which he has nearly become synonymous: enduring American leadership around the globe in years to come. "I have no reason to expect that I will be nominated," he said, brushing aside the prospect of a White House run.
"But I would say that what we should focus on as a party most immediately is building up the capabilities that we need to restore credibility to America's deterrence," he quickly added. "Deterrence, once lost, is very hard to regain."
He has similarly maintained a focus on veterans' issues, particularly reform at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We need to give them authority in the same way the military has authority to relieve a commander promptly if he is failing the mission," Cotton said. "The VA needs the same kind of authority, and then we need a president and a secretary who will exercise it and hold people accountable at all levels."
Despite his newfound stardom in the party, Cotton said he was distracted more by his marriage in 2014, and a son born in April of last year.
"The bigger change in my life has not been getting elected to Congress, but becoming a husband and now a father has changed my daily routine," he said. "Changing dirty diapers and waking up to a screaming child in bed at 2 in the morning were not part of my hobbies before I got elected."
Washington Examiner: Could Congress be doing more to enable the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire employees more easily?
Cotton: I do. We need to give VA managers more accountability. The VA needs more effective, dynamic managers. [Former Defense Secretary] Bob Gates wrote in his memoir that the only department of government more difficult to reform than the Department of Defense was the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Congress often focuses on what we can do, which is changing or authorizing legislation and funding levels, sometimes moving boxes and lines around charts.
That can be important. Gates wrote that what's more important than organizational charts and reporting structures is having leaders who are creative and thoughtful and diligent and enabling and empowering them and holding them accountable. That's what the military does. That's why the military, in its core mission, has always been so successful.
Examiner: How can that be done, especially with respect to the secretary?
Cotton: It's not just the secretary. It's down to the levels of the agencies, like the Veterans Benefits Administration and Veterans Health Administration. We need to give them authority in the same way the military has authority to relieve a commander promptly if he is failing the mission, or just not the right fit for the mission.
The VA needs the same kind of authority, and then we need a president and a secretary who will exercise it and hold people accountable at all levels.
Examiner: How should the Pay for Success program be reformed or improved?
Cotton: I think we should make sure that we actually are paying for success, that we're getting good outcomes. Some of that may be using pilot programs to begin with so you're not trying to design, from scratch, entire programs without testing them out in the the real world. Too often in the government we try to develop something that works in theory without seeing if it works in practice.
Examiner: You've pointed out that more veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be entering Congress in future years. How do you think that's going to change the dynamic?
Cotton: Whether they're Republicans or Democrats, we serve in both parties, I think it will give us a sense of camaraderie and a cooperative spirit that sometimes is lacking in Washington.
I think it's important to have veterans for the practical knowledge we have of what happens on the front lines, and not the rosy stories that can be told by civilian or political appointees that are not always the case. I saw that myself in Iraq in 2006, and Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, neither of which I recognized when I read about it in the newspapers or online when I was deployed.
I think the American people consistently elect combat veterans to public office throughout our history because they respect patriotism and the service and the sacrifice that comes with having served in the military. I think that's especially true of this generation, because it's the first generation in which you truly have a major and long-lasting conflict that's all-volunteer.
We had some of that in the '80s and '90s with smaller and shorter conflicts, like Granada and Panama and the Gulf War, but this is the first multi-year, protracted conflict in which you have an all-volunteer force. I think that reflects very well on this generation of veterans. They knew what they were getting into when they signed up for it.
Examiner: What should we be doing militarily to stop the spread of the Islamic State, which CIA Director John Brennan has said is now greater in number than al Qaeda at its peak?
Cotton: More. The president consistently puts arbitrary caps on troop levels. He consistently makes it hard for generals to make honest, even-handed requests for troops. The rules of engagement are too limiting, in my opinion.
Some of the rules that our intelligence community has to follow are too limiting. So there are multiple changes that we need to make to take the fight to the Islamic State. I have great praise for the FBI and domestic law enforcement agencies, but we can't keep our country safe, we can't stop terrorist attacks on defense.
Ultimately in a country as large as ours, terrorists are going to get through, as we've seen in Orlando, in San Bernardino, in Fort Hood, at the Boston Marathon and in Chattanooga and so forth. We have to win the war on terror on offense, and that means going to places where groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda are developing safe havens in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and so forth.
Examiner: Are there specific countries in which we should have more ground forces?
Cotton: Our generals say, sometimes publicly and sometimes off the record, that they need more troops in Iraq to help train the Iraqi forces and work with the Sunni tribes to defeat the Islamic State. Troop levels are always going to be something that depend on conditions on the ground.
Not just in places where we're fighting actively, like in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in places like Japan and South Korea and Italy and Germany as well. In general, I think it's a good thing that we have more interaction with foreign governments and foreign militaries.
Just sending a 12-man Green Beret team to a small country for three months to help train their special forces or to help train their security police can yield huge dividends not just for that country, but for us as well, because it gives them the capabilities they need to control their own territory, and to prevent their territories from being used by terrorist groups like the Islamic State, like al Qaeda, like al Shabaab, like Boko Haram.
Examiner: You recently asked Brennan's opinion on a company called Dataminr, which collects and sells information on Twitter users. That company stopped selling to U.S. intelligence services at Twitter's request, but is still selling to Russia Today, which is often thought of as synonymous with Russian intelligence services. Can you expand on that?
Cotton: It's very disappointing, as he said, that an American company would cooperate with Russia Today, which is a propaganda arm of the Putin regime, but will not cooperate with the intelligence community, especially when they've cooperated in the past, apparently for PR reasons.
I hope they'll reconsider, and that they'll find some way to continue to help the people in our intelligence agencies keep our country safe, especially if they're going to help Vladimir Putin continue to spread lies about our country.
Examiner: You've been critical of encrypted products offered by American companies. One example is WhatsApp, a Facebook messaging application that recently began offering it. How do you respond to the argument that foreign companies are going to offer encrypted products even if American companies do not?
Cotton: I'm not critical of encryption. It's essential in our modern society. We all depend on encryption, whether it's for our financial data or health data. It's going to be increasingly important because criminals, terrorists and nation states are trying to steal Americans' personal data. So encryption is very important.
What concerns me is unbreakable encryption specifically designed to avoid, not just for intelligence purposes, but law enforcement purposes as well.
In the same way that we expect banks to turn over bank records with a lawful subpoena, and we expect telephone companies to install a wiretap with a lawful subpoena, I think our society needs to have a serious conversation about whether we exempt data held by tech companies from the same standard of citizenship.
Examiner: How would Hillary Clinton be on foreign policy and security compared to the Republican nominee?
Cotton: I think Hillary Clinton is both disqualified and compromised from being commander in chief. If you look at the many crises we have around the world, she was there at the beginning of almost every one.
She was the one who pressed the reset button [with Russia], even after Vladimir Putin had invaded Georgia. She was the one who didn't just advocate for airstrikes in Libya, but also celebrated them in her private email, and called them her "biggest accomplishment."
She was the one who couldn't get the status of forces agreement extended with Iraq. She was the one who treated China like they were nothing but a partner and an ally at a time when they were starting to build islands in the South China Sea and militarize those islands. That's just her failed policy record.
Then you add the fact that she put national security at risk. She put the lives of Americans and people who were helping America at risk by potentially setting up a private, unsecured email server with a complete disregard for the laws governing classified information.
Then you add to that the fact that she's deleted tens of thousands of emails, the contents of which we have no idea at this point, and we assume that Moscow and Beijing have them.
So we worry that she's not just disqualified, looking at the past, but compromised, looking to the future, because there's no telling what kind of leverage Moscow and Beijing and Tehran might have over her or other people within her administration with whom she was emailing.
Examiner: On the topic of hacking, a recent report from FireEye found that Chinese commercial espionage is still taking place. The Obama administration still refuses to attribute responsibility for cyberattacks from them and from Russia and others. Do you see that as a problem?
Cotton: The administration should certainly be more aggressive in identifying China as one of the main perpetrators of cyberattacks against government, military and commercial institutions.
They should also be more forthright in identifying and pushing back on Chinese aggression in the physical world as well, as with their efforts to build islands in the South China Sea and militarize them so they can have effective control of the sea.
China is something the United States has not faced for a long time. They're not just a geostrategic competitor, but they're also an economic competitor. We haven't really faced something like that, probably, since the rise of Germany in the early part of the 20th century, and we need to take them seriously as the adversary they are, even as we are a trading partner with them.
Examiner: If you're nominated as the Republican candidate for vice president when the RNC convenes in July, what issues would you hope to focus on through the election?
Cotton: I have no reason to expect that I will be nominated, but I would say that what we should focus on as a party most immediately is building up the capabilities that we need to restore credibility to America's deterrence.
Deterrence, once lost, is very hard to regain. That's why the president's red line fiasco in Syria is so dangerous. That's why when I travel around the world, I hear about the red line fiasco wherever I go.
In East Asia, in Europe, anywhere, even places that are far removed from the Middle East, because so much of global security depends on the word of the United States, which means the word of the president of the United States.
As senators and congressmen, there's only so much we can do on that front. But what we can do is make sure our military has the funding and has the capability it needs to back up the president's word in the future. If you look at some independent assessments, I think there's a pretty good case to be made that our military is underfunded to the tune of about $75 or $100 billion.
This is something Ronald Reagan recognized in the late 1970s and something on which he campaigned in 1980. It was a critical part of his campaign. I think that we as a party need to make the case for substantial increases in our military budget early next year.
Examiner: Should we be doing more on border security?
Cotton: We long ago should have built a fence on the southern border. If they didn't work, there wouldn't be one around the White House. We've built them in places like the San Diego sector where they've worked very effectively. Israel has built a fence on its southern border.
Not the security fence around Judea and Samaria, but on its southern border specifically to stop illegal migrant labor, and it cut it effectively to zero. Many countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans have begun to erect fences to stop the migrant flow from the Middle East.
Fences work. It's just common sense. Congress has frequently dictated in law that a fence should be built, and it's not built. The American people rightfully believe the political class must not be serious about it. It's time we got serious.
Examiner: What think tanks do you look to the most for information?
Cotton: I appreciate the scholarship of many here in Washington. The American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Foreign Policy Initiative, Brookings and the Center for a New American Security are just a handful.
A lot of great think tanks, not all of them necessarily conservative, there are a lot of insightful and creative and provocative thinkers who have been in government and have a lot to share with policymakers who are in government now.
Examiner: What's on your recommended reading list?
Cotton: If you only had one book, there's no doubt it would be the Bible, it's a great source of inspiration and faith and literature and history. That's one reason I try to study it every day.
Going beyond that, if you think about foreign policy and national security, Walter Russell Mead is the very best, I think, writing today. All the works of Henry Kissinger are of course classic. Robert Kaplan has written great books based on his travels around the world that are very informative.
For fiction writers, I think Dana Silva, C.J. Vonn and Jason Matthews are all great.
Examiner: Did getting elected to Congress change significantly how you're able to spend your time?
Cotton: No, I still try to run most days and work out a couple times a week. The bigger change in my life has not been getting elected to Congress, but how becoming a husband and now a father has changed my daily routine. Changing dirty diapers and waking up to a screaming child in bed at 2 in the morning were not part of my hobbies before I got elected.