U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, told a state chamber crowd on Tuesday (July 1) that the crumbling military situation in Iraq has led to an insurgent group more dangerous than Al-Qaeda.
Foreign policy has rarely been a topic of discussion in Arkansas' high-profile U.S. Senate race as Cotton challenges incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.
In response to a question about Middle East instability and its potential impact on national security, the Fourth District Congressman wasted no time leaning on his military credentials while bashing President Obama's decision-making in Iraq.
"ISIS may be a greater danger today to Iraq than Al-Qaeda was on Sept. 10, 2001," said Cotton, a former member of the 101st Airborne who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although not in the U.S. Senate when the U.S. went to war with Iraq, Obama in 2002 and 2003 spoke frequently against going to war with Iraq.
"For those of you who don't follow it closely, ISIS is the English language abbreviation for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was defeated – which the President's own deputy director of central intelligence said was defeated when he withdrew all the troops from Iraq in 2011," he said.
"Just two days ago though they changed their name, not to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but to the Islamic State, which goes to show that their ambitions are not limited to Iraq and Syria," Cotton added. "Perhaps even more ominous, the leader of the Islamic State, a hardened terrorist whose been at this for decades, was detained reportedly by American and Iraqi forces during the Iraq war – he was ultimately released. As he was released, he told his American captors, 'I'll see you in New York.' That tells you all you need to know about the ambitions for the Islamic State."
Cotton described to the nearly 80 state business leaders that Islamist militants of ISIS, who are capturing cities in northern and western Iraq, are the "most well-armed and well-funded terrorist group in history."
He said their goal is to "displace Al-Qaeda as the leading umbrella terrorist organization" in the world.
"They're not just doing that because they want to run northern Iraq and eastern Syria. They're doing that because they want a safe haven from which they can launch attacks against American interests all around the world," said Cotton.
"I think this is a direct result of the President's very short-sighted decision to disregard his generals' advice in 2011 to withdraw every single troop – these troops were not going to be trigger-pullers, they weren't going to be out on the front line fighting the fight – these were planners and truckers, logistics experts and intelligence experts that would help provide a degree of professionalism to the Iraqi security forces.”
Cotton also criticized the Obama administration for failing to work collaboratively with an admittedly difficult Iraqi Prime Minister.
"That would continue to give us a source of leverage against [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki, who no doubt is a very hardened leader with whom to work. But it's the President's job to maintain relationships with those very difficult foreign leaders. Not just to wipe his hands of it because he doesn't like to have to do it. If we had those troops on the ground today, then we'd have a lot more leverage over Nouri al-Maliki. Maybe he wouldn't have fired all of his Sunni commanders. Maybe he wouldn't have replaced them with Shiite cronies. Maybe he wouldn't have created a parallel command and control structure that bypasses the traditional structure that we helped put in place. And we wouldn't see our two most mortal enemies gaining ground in Iraq. Remember, it's not just ISIS in the north. It's Iran gaining more and more influence with al-Maliki and in the South as well, which is predominantly Shiite.”
In recent days it has also been learned that Iraqi government and military officials have turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help. Russian entry into the situation could further complicate the entanglements related to the influence of foreign governments on the numerous wings of armed Muslim groups.
"I think it's a grave threat to our national security. Unfortunately, the President doesn't have a lot of options. I don't think that's a defense though of his path, I think its an indictment of his path,” Cotton said of the growing complexity of relations in the Middle East.