Barney Frank Talks Drones, Military Spending and Budget in Lecture at New School
Yesterday evening in the New School’s John Tishman Auditorium, former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank delivered a free lecture on domestic and foreign policy to an audience of students, faculty and other New Yorkers. Frank cultivated a substantial reputation with his no-nonsense, uncompromising rhetoric, policy expertise, and a willingness to buck political trends. After speaking for about an hour he accepted questions, first from moderator Robert Pollin, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and then from audience members.
Although a deeply polarizing figure due to his outspoken progressivism as well as his personal life, few can dispute his influence and public stature. He will go down in history as the first openly gay man to serve in Congress, as well as one of the few politicians to vote against the Iraq War resolution. Never one known for mincing words, retirement from Congress has made Frank even more bold. No longer the least bit obligated to tow the Democratic Party line, he spared no one from criticism, including figures held in high regard by many liberals.
This stems from the implication prevalent throughout his lecture that many of the problems facing America are of a bipartisan nature. Even though the Republicans might be worse, Frank cut the Democrats no slack for being the lesser of two evils. One of his main contentions is that the conventional wisdom in Washington about spending and, indeed, the role of government as a whole, is fundamentally flawed. Instead of fighting back against policies and ideological assumptions propagated by movement conservatives, liberals have accepted them.
Case in point: President Bill Clinton’s famous quote that “the era of big government is over.” In Frank’s view, government is not an entity that stands on its own, but rather the product of citizens cooperating to get things done and improve the overall quality of life. This, of course, requires adequate spending on necessary programs and a fair tax code that asks more of the wealthy. In substance, Americans are largely in favor of the services government provides like social security, Medicare and Medicaid. While suspicious of terms and arguments that conjure images of “big government,” Americans generally favor government programs in practice. However, Republicans and their Democratic enablers have stoked distrust of government by starving it of the resources it needs to function.
Frank touched on domestic causes only briefly, devoting the bulk of his talk to the realm of foreign policy. First and foremost, he contends that military spending has remained at an unsustainable level since the Bush years. He blames this on a Cold War mindset propagated by neoconservatives, based on the erroneous premise that terrorism is the great existential threat facing the U.S. 9/11 lent some credence to this notion, leading the Bush administration to wage a justified (albeit unnecessarily drawn out) war in Afghanistan and an unjustified one in Iraq. Rather than launching a military operation with limited, realistic objectives, America tried to accomplish the impossible: forcing “democracy” and “freedom” onto states that did not want or couldn’t sustain them. Alas, this only served to inflame anti-American sentiment while yielding little success.
Failure in Iraq, at great cost in blood and treasure, has turned Americans against nation building. Many of the Bush Administration’s follies still infect government today. Frank praised President Obama’s forbearance on the matter of Syria and his commitment to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He took issue with Obama’s assertion that America is the “indispensable nation,” implying as it does the need for military involvement all over the globe. His main criticism, though, is more systemic. At a time of economic hardship at home, the U.S. cannot sustain its bloated military budget.
In the case of fighting the war on terror, it is neither wise nor possible to be everywhere at once. Even more confounding is our continued military presence in Europe when the allies we’re protecting as a vestigial byproduct of the Cold War spend almost nothing in their own defense. As far as investing vast amounts to curb the influence of rivals like Russia and China, Frank points out that the U.S. has a larger, more powerful military than the rest of the nations in the world combined. China, allegedly so great a threat, only recently acquired its first aircraft carrier from the Ukraine.
Finally, Frank points out the irony and hypocrisy in the argument propagated by many Republicans that cutting excess military spending will hurt our struggling economy. Compared to spending in other areas, feeding the military-industrial complex yields only minor benefits. It is odd for “small government” conservatives to make what is essentially a Keynesian premise that funding expensive, unneeded weapons will stimulate growth. If Republicans accept that spending can help the economy, then that spending should be on programs that are currently underfunded, like improving our infrastructure.
Though unsparing in his criticism of those with whom he disagrees, Frank went out of his way not to attribute selfish motives. For example, he quickly dismissed the common liberal accusation that the Bush administration launched the Iraq War for oil, insisting that its advocates were operating on noble, yet flawed assumptions. He was also unwilling to categorically condemn the judicious use of drones, considering them in the same moral category as any other deadly military weapons.
Barney Frank’s knack for devastatingly witty soundbites makes it easy to overlook the depth of his worldview. In the context of a lecture, a man who might seem to harbor a doctrinaire progressive outlook tempers his strident critiques with penetrating insights into the positions of his ideological opponents. Unlike so many politicians, he resists the expediency of oversimplifying the motives of his opponents or their positions. He gives ideas that could not be more different from his own a fair hearing, even finding common ground. In doing so, his debunking of said views are all the more convincing and his speeches all the more enlightening to hear.