Goldberg: Did the criticism about your open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei resonate with you at all? The idea that you are telling a foreign adversary, ‘Don't trust in our president—the man who's making our foreign policy?’ Did that cause you to ask yourself, ‘Maybe I am undermining the executive branch?’
Cotton: No, in part because the letter didn't say that. The letter simply stated indisputable facts of constitutional law, and Iran's leaders needed to hear that message, and they needed to hear it from us. What we did was certainly more measured than what past senators had done, in conciliating with people like Manuel Noriega, Bashar al-Assad, or Leonid Brezhnev. The difference is we openly stood up to a dictator, and in a lot of those past precedents, Senate Democrats privately conciliated and coddled dictators.
Goldberg: Why do you think your general outlook is so disparaged, even in parts of the Republican Party? I don't mean the Rand Paul wing, even. I mean, I hear from Republicans who are wary of going down a path that would lead to another Middle East war. Or let me put this another way: Do you believe that the country is tired of these sorts of wars and of this kind of engagement?
Cotton: I think that Americans—and this is not true just now, but over the years—are not fundamentally opposed to war. They're fundamentally opposed to losing wars. And that's one reason why President Bush lost support for the Iraq War in the period of 2004 to 2006.
Goldberg: Do we have to win wars quickly to make them popular?
Cotton: I don't think we have to win quickly necessarily, but we have to win. By the time the 2008 election arrived, we had finally won the Iraq War, or we were on the road to winning it. We won starting in the summer of 2007 going into late 2011. Had President Obama, for instance, accepted our commanders' recommendations to keep a small residual force in Iraq, I think the country would have supported that decision. Also, the predictions of so many at the time have now proven correct—that there was a chance that Iraq, absent American forces, would be destabilized, and ultimately now we may end up with more troops in Iraq at the end of this president's tenure than we would have if he had just accepted his commanders' recommendations in 2011 to keep a residual force in place.
In the same way, this president, knowing that Americans don't want to lose a war, and in our most recent experience in Iraq, the war looked to be won, he's now trying to create what he always accuses his opponents of trying to create: a false choice—‘this deal or war.’ And he defines war in Iran as 150,000 heavy mechanized troops, not something like Operation Desert Fox.
Goldberg: Let me just come back to this one point. How do you know you're right? The experience of Iraq taught me that once the kinetic piece starts, you just don't know for sure what's going to happen. And I don't know that you can predict the response of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to a direct American assault on [the Iranian facilities of] Natanz, Fordow, and Parchin. Maybe they will be intimidated into silence, but maybe they'll lose their minds? Yes, it's a $30-billion defense budget, but they have asymmetric ways of making life miserable for the United States and its allies. So how are you so sure that the response of the Iranians to an attack that would destroy their nuclear infrastructure, at least temporarily, would be limited and/or manageable?