Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., heads to the Senate subway following a vote in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2015.
Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

GOP senator makes a clumsy case on nuclear proliferation

While the Bush/Cheney administration struggled with its fiasco in Iraq, a related problem unfolded thousands of miles away: North Korea joined the small circle of nations with nuclear weapons. In response, the Republican White House at the time did effectively nothing.

The result wasn’t just a frightening security dynamic, the administration also inadvertently sent an alarming signal to U.S. adversaries: if you want to avoid a military confrontation, you’re better off having nuclear weapons (like North Korea), than not having them (like Iraq).

It was a lesson Iran understood all too well: it was on Bush/Cheney’s watch that Iran’s total number of centrifuges grew from 164 to 8,000.

A decade later, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) raised a related point during an interview yesterday with Hugh Hewitt. The conservative host asked the Republican senator for his response to assertions that Donald Trump gave away too much to Kim Jong-un during this week’s summit, and the senator replied:

“There is a school of thought that the United States should not sit down, that the United States president should not sit down with two-bit dictators. I think there’s some validity to that school of thought with the exception once those dictators have nuclear weapons.

“You know, countries like Iran and Cuba and other two-bit rogue regimes don’t have nuclear weapons, yet. They can’t threaten the United States in that way. Once North Korea had nuclear weapons, once they have missiles that can deliver them to use, I would liken it to past presidents sitting down with Soviet dictators. It’s not something that we should celebrate. It’s not a pretty sight. But it’s a necessary part of the job to try to protect Americans from a terrible threat.”

There’s quite a bit wrong with this, starting with the idea that presidential negotiations with North Korea’s dictatorship are somehow “necessary.” They’re not. Trump didn’t have to give Kim one of his most sought-after goals in exchange for nothing; he chose to.

And even among those who believe direct and bilateral talks are “necessary,” that doesn’t explain Trump’s effusive praise and affection for one of the world’s most brutal authoritarians.

But looking past these relevant details, there’s a broader significance to Cotton’s vision: it creates a powerful incentive for “two-bit dictators” to get nuclear weapons as quickly as possible.

Indeed, the Arkansan wasn’t particularly subtle: Cotton made the case that we shouldn’t sit down with dictators unless they have nuclear weapons. If you want our attention, you need to be able to threaten the United States with the most dangerous tool possible in any nation’s arsenal.

Because, under Cotton’s version of foreign policy, if you don’t have the weapons, we’re not inclined to sit down with you.

As Chris Hayes put it yesterday, “[T]he message here, made explicit, is do everything you can to get a nuclear weapon, then you’ll be legitimate.” This is “literally the opposite of a non-proliferation message.”

Is this the new foreign policy line in Trump’s Republican Party?