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Tom Cotton's favorite talking point: ISIS is 'winning'

The far-right rookie senator wants Americans to believe Islamic State is "winning," despite the U.S. military offensive. Consider the evidence to the contrary.
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)
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., heads to the Senate subway following a vote in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2015.
Eight years ago at this time, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered a bleak assessment of the U.S. war in Iraq, which was almost immediately condemned by his Republican critics. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speculated about how American troops "are going to react" to such discouraging rhetoric about America's enemies winning a war.
Rhetorical standards have changed in the years since. When Reid said our enemies had effectively prevailed, it was a scandal. But this year, Sen. Tom Cotton (D-Ark.) seems almost preoccupied with the assertion that Islamic State militants are "winning," despite the U.S. military offensive against the radical group.
In February, the far-right senator said that to "many radical Muslims all around the world," ISIS appeared to be "winning this war right now, and people like a winner." In March, Cotton added that the United States is "not winning" the conflict.
This week, the Arkansas Republican repeated the argument once again, this time to CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

"'[W]e just haven't rolled back the Islamic state at all over the last six or seven months, which would begin our air campaign. They've continued to hold the ground they've always had. They haven't advanced. But we're not holding back either. And that's not going to be enough to defeat them. [...] [T]he Islamic state seems to be winning right now. They're appealing to disaffected, alienated youth around the country who want to be with what they see as the winning horse."

Apparently, by 2015 standards, there's nothing shocking about Cotton's dour assessment. But this raises a related question: is the senator right on the merits?
Vox's Zack Beauchamp makes a detailed and compelling case that the rookie senator doesn't know what he's talking about.

[The senator's assessment] is, in fact, the exact opposite of what is occurring. ISIS is losing substantial ground in Iraq, and it's hard to imagine why Cotton is insisting otherwise. Let's start with his claim that ISIS "hasn't been rolled back" in the past six or seven months. Here are a few places where ISIS has, in fact, been rolled back: (1) In August, ISIS lost control of the Mosul Dam, a critical part of northern Iraq's infrastructure. (2) In October, Iraqis pushed ISIS out of Jurf al-Sakhar, a former ISIS stronghold near Baghdad. (3) In January, Kurdish forces took Kiske, a northern town that sits on a critical ISIS supply line between its territory in Syria and Iraq. (4) In April, Iraqi forces pushed ISIS out of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown and a major Sunni city. [...] Cotton's implication that American airstrikes have played no role in hurting ISIS is also quite clearly wrong. [Iraq expert Michael Knights called] "Western air/intel" a "key determinant" of ISIS's defeats, as it "greatly reduces [ISIS's] ability to surprise, evade, [and] counterattack" against increasingly effective Iraqi forces.

In all likelihood, Cotton's missteps are motivated by knee-jerk partisanship -- his contempt for President Obama leads the far-right senator to look for ways to blame the White House and undermine public confidence in the administration's national-security strategy.
But while ISIS and Cotton both want Americans to believe the group is thriving, there's clearly ample evidence to the contrary.