WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., gave a characteristically blistering speech Thursday night on the final night of the party’s convention, critiquing Joe Biden on foreign policy and urging Republicans to reject any leader who “takes a knee,” a reference to the movement for racial justice and police reform.
Cotton is a 43-year old Harvard Law School graduate and a former combat veteran who served in the 101st Airborne Division in the Iraq War. He has courted controversy with controversial stances since arriving in Washington in 2013. Most recently he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that President Trump should send federal troops into American cities in the days after George Floyd’s death to quell “rioters” who he said had “plunged many American cities into anarchy.”
The op-ed led to a revolt inside the New York Times and to the resignation of opinion page editor James Bennett. The incident began a debate within journalism over the notion of “cancel culture” and changing standards for what is acceptable debate.
“Cancel culture” — the notion that people can be publicly shamed or financially punished for unpopular opinions — has been a prominent focus of Republicans during their convention this week.
But Cotton did not even mention it. Instead, he ran through a roster of foreign policy areas in which he said Biden has been wrong and Trump has been right: military spending, China, the Iran nuclear deal, Israel, South America, free trade, and the fight against ISIS.
“America is safer now than four years ago,” Cotton said.
The details of foreign policy debates can be esoteric and obscure. But Cotton, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday night, quoted former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to level a sweeping critique of Biden’s judgment in general. Gates said in his 2014 memoir that Biden was a “man of integrity” but that he had “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Cotton relied on that line to deliver one of his key takeaways: “Joe Biden would be as wrong and weak over the next four years as he has been for the last 50,” he said.
The criticism from Gates is perhaps the most scathing critique of Biden from an establishment foreign policy figure. Gates was secretary of defense to President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. Gates and Biden have a long and contentious relationship going back at least to 1991, when Biden opposed Gates’s nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency and said he had been “disappointed in the past in Mr. Gates’ analytical skills.”
In 2019, before it was clear that the 2020 election would come down to a contest between Biden and Trump, Gates said he stood by the criticism. But over the past few months, he has tempered his critique of Biden and instead trained his sights on Trump.
“During the Obama administration, we agreed more than we disagreed,” Gates said in June. That same month on “Meet the Press,” he said that while he and Biden had often disagreed in the past, “I think one of the things that people will be weighing this fall is probably the character of the two contestants.”
And Gates told National Public Radio in June that Trump has weakened America at home and abroad.
“It’s just a reality that this president has not seen it as one of his priorities to try and bring people together, either in general or in response to terrible events, whether it’s the pandemic or the response to George Floyd’s death. It’s hard to disagree that this president is a divider,” Gates said.
Gates said he agreed with Trump on a few elements of his foreign policy but that, in general, “he has weakened our alliances. … I think that we are in a weaker position in the world today than we were three years ago.”
But in his Thursday speech at the RNC, Cotton cast Trump’s angering of allies abroad not as an example of isolation and weakness but as a positive. “We lead the free world. But we’ll stand alone if we must to defend America,” Cotton said.
Cotton’s only foray into the culture wars was a brief one. He said that “we need a president who stands up for America, not one who takes a knee.”
That was just one of many remarks and gestures at this year’s Republican convention that symbolized a rejection of the movement led by professional athletes over the last few years to draw attention to police brutality against Black men.
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