Barney Frank: The Tide is Turning on Military Spending

Barney Frank delivered this speech at the Massachusetts Peace Action annual meeting on February 8, 2014 at St. Ignatius Parish, Boston College.

Barney Frank speech {Transcription of Barney Frank Audio}
I had a chance to hear Professor Bacevich because I couldn’t find a parking space in BC and was driving around for about 15 minutes. I do have a license plate that says that I’m a former member of Congress, it’s better than nothing but not as good as being a current member of Congress [laughter] so it means that I park in a little longer circle.

Broad driving forces of the military excess
But I was very pleased to hear him make a point that’s very important for people on the left to understand. The factors driving an excessive military budget and the foreign policy it serves go far beyond the military industrial complex. That is a much too simplistic view. There is a whole construct of ideological and philosophical arguments that went with it. In fact, in my experience, what the military industrial complex has done has been to preserve specific weapon systems. But it has not been the driver of the overall excess. I agree with much of what he says about this, but I mean get right at the third question:

Inwardly focused peace movement not helping much
How do we stop it? And I have a model for it, ‘cause I agree with him that much of what our side has been doing isn’t useful. Let me start with a rule, watching, starting from the civil rights movement and through the LGBT movement and others, if you care deeply about a cause, and you are engaged in an activity on behalf of that cause, that makes you feel very good, you are with those with whom you agree, you are expressing your deep emotional commitment, in a warm and friendly atmosphere, you are almost certainly not helping. [much laughter] We cheer each other on and give each other warm feelings, and we don’t reach the opposition.

NRA succeeds by getting intense supporters to pressure their officials
I have a model for us. On the table are a series of implicitly frustrated pamphlets, if that can be attributed to a pamphlet [laughter] about the disparity between the broad public support for gun control, and the failure of any public policy to achieve it. Part of the reason for that is the National Rifle Association, and it’s not because they make big contributions or command large amounts of money. They are a very disciplined political operation. When any potential piece of legislation or executive action that puts any restriction on guns or ammunition, is remotely close to consideration, they have a network which they put into action, and every elected official hears from everyone in his or her district who cares about this from their standpoint, “Don’t do it”. And there is a large number of people for whom gun regulation is one of several issues. They outnumber those for whom gun control is the only issue, because they’re on the opposite side of it. And for a politician, that’s what counts, because they have that intensity.

Demonstrations not needed
And I will tell you, when you people said, well why don’t you want a demonstration, don’t you want to be militant and effective? I consider the NRA to be an excessively militant and regrettably effective organization, and I have never seen a shoot-in. I have never seen much of a march by them. A few of the whackos did start showing up at Congressional meetings carrying guns. Those are the Tea Party, that wasn’t the NRA.

Votes do count
And so yeah, now there were times when you can say, well, there’s such an overwhelming consensus in favor of this, our votes won’t count. I think of the greatest example of political integrity in American history, Janet Rankin, a woman with the worst luck ever. She ran for Congress as a woman in Montana before there was national suffrage, she got elected to the House in 1916, she voted against World War I and she was defeated. She went back to Montana and 22 years later she thought the time was right to run for Congress again. So she got elected again in 1940, she voted against World War II and she was defeated. [laughter] There was one theory that said we can’t elect her because every time she comes to Congress, we have a war. [laughter]

On the Armed Forces Committee to fight the excess
But we are in a very fortunate situation. Now Carol mentioned some of us have been fighting this for a long time, did I, one other favorite story. When Ron Dellums, Pat Schroeder together arrived in the House, and very much to their credit chose to go on the Armed Services committee. Part of the problem is the institutional support that the professor mentioned. People in Congress tend to go on the committee of the things they like. So the Agriculture committee is overly weighted to the farmers. The military base representatives went on the Armed Services committee. Dellums and Schroeder went on that committee to help fight the excess from the inside, and the chairman at the time, a right-wing racist from Louisiana named F Edward A Behr [not found on internet], was so angry, it was bad enough to have peace advocates, opponents of the Vietnam War, we’re talking the early 70s, but for them to be one a black and one a woman, added insult to the injury he felt he was getting, and he literally he assigned them only one chair, [laughter] he made them share a chair. I was not in Congress then, so I didn’t know that, but when I later heard Ron repeat it, I did say that they were two very outstanding public officials, and I now knew that at least once in their life they had each done something half-assed, but [much laughter] we were up against it for awhile.

Public opinion to reduce military and interventions
The good news is, public opinion has turned, and I believe the country is now ready for effective political action that will substantially reduce the military budget, and, I don’t think, I can’t think of a mechanism to turn around the notion of America as a world policeman and the excessive impulse to intervene, selectively, as was said, but the way to do it is to take advantage of the fact that the American people today by the majority don’t want to intervene in any one specific place, and you build from the specific to the general. No, we can’t pass a national referendum if such a specific mechanism existed, that said that America will not intervene in these situations.

Even hawks doubt support for more big investments in Afghanistan
But there is not a case, and in fact, the most hawkish in the establishment, like Senator McCain, Senator Graham, people who are critical of President Obama for being too noninterventionist have been very unpleasantly surprised by the resistance to, I mean they were critical of the President of not doing more in Libya, he was leading from behind, they were upset that he didn’t send American military presence in some form into Syria, they criticized him for withdrawing totally from Iraq. Even they, however, have now begun to understand that making the case for staying in Afghanistan, and what we are talking about I’m told that a 10 year commitment of about 10 thousand American troops, this is a few months ago, and that troop commitment being the enabler of 4 billion dollars a year in aid, so you’re talking about 100 billion a year to do more of the same in Afghanistan. Fortunately, Karzai has been too bizarre even for those people. Even Lindsay Graham has been forced to warn him that if he doesn’t get his insults to us down to two a week, [laughter] he won’t be able to get the support he needs to spend another 100 billion dollars on his behalf. The American people are ready for change.

Fear maintains the military excess and interventionism
Now let me give you my sense of where we are. There have been two strains, and I agree with much of what Professor Bacevich said, and there were two strains that I’ve seen which have maintained the interventionist impulse and the way over-swirling budget to support it. It began with a legitimate sense of fear. And there were obvious strains of interventionism before, there was the great debate around the turn of the 19th and the 20th century about the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of territories then. William McKinley to his credit was much more skeptical about it. Then he got murdered and Theodore Roosevelt came in as a great enthusiast of imperialism by America.

Fear in WWII and cold war sustained big military
But the real change was 1941. Remember, before Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt and Sam Rayburn barely were able to get a bill extending the draft through the Congress. It passed by one vote and Rayburn’s quick gavel. And Roosevelt campaigned in 1940: “I will not send you people into war”. Fear of Hitler began to change that. And then for 50 years, we had first Hitler, then Stalin and his successors, who clearly at first, much less clearly later, but the culture lag kept it going. They were seen widely as an existential threat to our very society, our very existence as a free society. So there was this argument that you had to be firm. There were obviously also at the time a significant group of members of the elite, who believed many of the things that were just outlined, about our mission in the world, about greatness, and they were able to use that fear of very bad, heavily armed people doing bad things to us to keep up this level. Now obviously, particularly in the case of the Soviet Union, the fear was kept at a much higher level, that was justified as things began to come down, and we had this pattern of poor mouthing our military capacities, this notion that we were falling behind the Soviets, and had to expand it. It began, as some of you who are my age will remember, with John F Kennedy, who got elected by talking in part about a missile gap, which it turned out did not exist. The missile gap being they having many more missiles than we do. But that sustained this.

Democrats for President had to be tough
We reached a point where, and Democrats were intimidated in particular because of the post World War II use of softness on communism, against Truman and Stevenson. In fact, it became an article of faith, especially after George McGovern’s very one-sided loss, it became an article of faith that the Democratic nominee for President had to be clear that he was for military toughness. And I remember some of the best, most liberal consultants saying “Oh no, but you got to show how tough you are”. That is why one of our greatest public servants, Michael Dukakis showed up in a helmet, in a tank, because they told him he had to demonstrate his ability to stand up to worldwide communism.

Post Cold War military budgets decreased
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, that did begin to fade, and if you look at the budgets, and I’m taking the budgets as a proxy for the overall attitude for two reasons. First of all it’s hard to get at the overall attitude, but secondly, you know that one way you cut back on these military advances and these excessive interventions is by cutting back the funding that could be used for them. And under George H.W. Bush the military budget began to decrease, and Clinton continued that, even though each of them had an intervention, Kuwait for George Bush and South Yugoslavia for Bill Clinton. And by the time George W. Bush took over, the military budget had dropped.

American imperialists needed a new fear
Now that was a problem for those who believe in that whole litany of American greatness, etc., because they had lost what had really carried them, and that was the fear that America would be attacked by bad people, and therefore we needed to build it up, and it was almost a two-step thing, the people who believed philosophically that America had to be the global policeman for a variety of reasons. They helped build up the notion that we had to have a very, very strong military to protect ourselves, and then that very strong military could be an instrument for them to do some of the interventions. And when 1990 came, during the 90s they had lost that, and the debate was starting to shift, and the military budget was dropping in relative terms, even in absolute terms at some point.

Neocons used 9/11 to make us fear terrorists not Soviets
And then came 9/11, and what Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and the neoconservatives were able to do, given the panic in America, this, terrible, obviously terrible attack within the United States, it brought back the sense of insecurity that existed among Americans, that they could capitalize on, and they did. And 9/11 and the terrorists became the replacement for the Soviet Union. No group has ever been so inappropriately empowered. The terrorists are terrible people and I personally have no objection if they are killed, if we are sure who they are. And they are mass murderers and I do not accept any justification about they were mad at American policy. Osama Bin Laden killed hundreds of totally uninvolved Africans in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 when he tried to blow up American embassies, and managed to hit all kinds of innocent residents of those countries. But the terrorists are not in any way close to the kind of threat to our existence, to our national security, that Hitler and Stalin and Stalin’s successors were.

Nukes don’t help against terrorists
When I’m told when I think that we don’t need to build any more nuclear submarines with MERV missiles ‘cause we already have so many, “Well what about the terrorists?” Well, nuclear submarines don’t defeat terrorism. I wish that they did, because they don’t have any and we have a lot. [laughter] And it would be over. I mean the fact is that they have used the threat of terrorism to continue to push for a level of expenditure that’s irrelevant for things that are relevant.

NY Times defending American greatness
But then we did have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Iraq is now over, Afghanistan is ending, and now you get to the institutional part, there is a wonderful article in the New York Times. I’m writing a book and this is going to be part of it. I left it out in the car. It was an article in the New York Times, and I agree, the New York Times, if you read it, has been a defender, everywhere outside of the specific editorials, but the whole assumptions of the columns is yeah, America has to play this all.

Obama derided for asking war ok
By the way, I have never seen a more appalling example of that, than when President Obama announced that he would not do anything in Syria after they used chemical weapons, without the approval of Congress. And he was widely derided for that, including in some of these sort of more liberal places. For years I thought it was an important liberal principle that the President should not send our military into combat without Congressional approval. And when Barack Obama became the first President to do that, he was criticized, including from people who I think used to say that was a good thing to do.

Times: Army seeking mission in Africa
But we had the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq used to pump things up, and as the Iraq war ended and as Afghanistan is trailing down, and I think it should get to zero, but it’s clearly less than before, there was this interesting article in the New York Times, printed somewhat sympathetically. It was a full-page explanation of all the great things our army was now doing in Africa, training people here and setting up radios there, and it said, I will give you an almost exact quote: “The army is moving to expand its activity in Africa in the search for a mission [laugher] as Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.” I should have brought it, but it is there.

Terrorists no longer a terrible threat
This is the problem these people now have: the American people no longer can be frightened by the terrorists as if they were a terrible threat to us. Remember they skopped oh this is a, this is a defense problem, not a criminal problem. Well it is more of a criminal problem, they are bad people, but you don’t stop them by the nuclear deterrent or other factors.

Fewer believers in our global mission
And what we now have is an opportunity, because the believers in the American global mission, etc., William Kristal, they’re mostly neoconservatives, but there is some on the Democratic side who do it as well, and the President, part of the problem is that Presidents have been told for a long time, and its partly because of what goes on in Washington, that if you want to be considered a capital R responsible person, you must at least to some extent, want to go into a couple of wars and cut some money from poor people. [laughter] Go into a couple of wars and cut some money from poor people. Those are two things, which if you do not do them, you are not responsible. I would agree, I just wouldn’t want to be responsible for what you are doing in those cases. And President Obama, and I have written and said this notion that we are the indispensible nation, no, we are not the indispensible nation, and people need to dispense with us [laughter] in some cases.

Our political majority to reduce the military
But here is, the political situation is this: absent the scare factor, we are in the majority in arguing for a much reduced American role in the world. A part of it is pragmatic; I have said that we have a terrible misconception about what the military can do. We have a wonderful military, I think the volunteer army has worked well, they are very well armed, and they can do pretty well what a military can do. They can stop bad things from happening, but no military can make good things happen. You cannot send the military into literally foreign societies and accomplish all these things. So, and the public understands that. There is now a significant public mandate, there was one not to go into Syria, there is one to come out of Afghanistan entirely and not to go forward, and that means that we now have a political constituency to reduce the military budget.

Biden pushing Obama out of Afghanistan
And I’ll wind up with this, but I’ll give you two practical things we should do. First of all the President is clearly being cross pressured, as we say, on Afghanistan. The hero in all this by the way has been Joe Biden. Joe Biden, in fact I did an article for the Portland paper which I write a column in, saying that if I were Joe, I would take Robert Gates’ criticism of him and use it the next time he runs in a Democratic primary, if he does. Gates said Biden’s always been wrong. Biden’s been right against Gates, and in fact in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was the leading advocate for getting out of Iraq altogether, and he’s pushing against a sustained presence in Afghanistan. The President, I spoke to him, he said, yes, I’m getting out of Afghanistan. Unfortunately he meant by that, of course right after that I saw his statement, reducing, removing American combat troops that we call combat troops, but leaving 8 to 10 thousand American troops who will be engaged in part in combat, but we don’t call them combat troops. They’re advisors, they’re special forces, etc.

Congress cut war spending before
I will go back now to one of the successful examples from the peace movement, the campaign in favor of the McGovern-Hatfield amendment, the one that says you can’t spend any money in Vietnam anymore, ‘cause that’s the one thing Congress can do, attach that kind of a limiting amendment to an appropriations bill that’s binding.

It’s ok we’re a majority
I think we ought to be demanding of our members of Congress and the President that they vote to say we are out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014 as quickly as can be accomplished with the safety of the troops in 2015. That’s a very achievable goal, where we’re in the majority [applause]. And that’s one thing I think people here need to adjust to. It’s ok to be in the majority [laughter] that doesn’t mean that you have compromised your principles. [laughter] And now it does affect the phrasing, there are people here, many who think America has played a terrible role, etc. That argument can go, simply at this point I would urge there’s a broad coalition, some of the most patriotic, who believe America’s always done the right thing, who think it’s time to pull back. Let’s work with them.

Work with the right to cut military
One of the last things I did as a member of Congress was to cosponsor a bill with Mick Mulvane, a Tea Party Republican from Charleston South Carolina, and it won. It was the first time the House has voted, in my memory, to reduce the military budget that the appropriations committee provided. There is a substantial body of opinion on the right who want to cut back on American military expenditures, both because they’re worried about the deficit, and because, and this is one of the inconsistencies I have charged my more mainstream conservatives with, there are people that tell me that we cannot as a country domestically do much about poverty, that we can’t help with unemployment, that we can’t do a lot to root out prejudice. But that same government that they think is impotent to much within America, can somehow go to Afghanistan and Iraq and transform those societies and solve deeply rooted problems that they’ve had forever. [laugher] There is that coalition.

Push Congress to leave Afghanistan, cut military, preserve quality of life
So first of all, let’s make an immediate campaign to get out of Afghanistan. Secondly, and members of Congress can be asked to do that, Jim McGovern I know has a bill on the subject, I don’t know who his Senate sponsor is. [audience member speaks] Who? [Merkley]. Senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon. Secondly, push them to cut the military budget. Now let’s be very clear. Given this concern for reducing the deficit, which I think is overblown from the economic standpoint, Paul Krugman has been a great guide on this, but there is no way to make any substantial reduction in the level of the deficit from where it now is, that does not devastate programs to promote our quality of life, that does not start with a very substantial reduction in the military budget of more than 100 billion dollars a year.

Let’s stay the strongest
And I’ll say, some may not agree with this, I’m used to arguing this point of view, that I am prepared to agree that America should be the strongest nation in the world. People said it’s chauvinistic, but the answer is just that, somebody has got to be the strongest nation in the world. [laughter] And I look at the potential candidates, [laughter] because who could be, I mean if Denmark could be the strongest nation in the world, I would be very content, [laughter] but when it’s China, not so much, but we can do that much more inexpensively.

p>Need 3 ways of bombing Soviets?
We can substantially reduce the military budget. You know, we still have three ways of dropping thermonuclear weapons on the Soviet Union, by nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines with MERV missiles, and the strategic air command. I have made a serious proposal that sounds like a joke, others have said it too, let’s say to the Pentagon, “Pick two”. [laughter] We don’t think the Soviet Union is as much of a threat as it used to be when it existed, [laughter] and therefore we could reduce what we have.

Military supremacy is ideological
We can tell the Army to stop looking for new missions. There is a desperate search on their part for a reason, and here I’m going to close with this, here’s their problem: the reason for keeping American military at the level it is, and supporting the level of intervention that is, is ideological. It is America has got to do this for the world, and by the way it’s got a particular ideological thing among many neoconservatives, namely, and Zbig’ Brzezinski talks about, this is sort of implicit in Brzezinski’s most recent book, although I can’t keep up with Brzezinski’s publishing schedule, maybe there’s been a new book since I read the last one. But his argument is that it is unbecoming of a nation that wants to consider itself great, to spend all its time worrying about the standard of living of its people. [laughter] That there needs to be a broader purpose.

England debated imperialism
Well this was fought in the nineteenth century in England. There was a debate between Great Britain and Little England. Little Englanders were the ones who were non-imperialist, who wanted to focus at home. And that is part of the argument, that to be a great nation, we have to be great.

We can do more good if we cut military
By the way, I am not an isolationist. I am all for effective economic aid. I worked hard to try to re-orientate the World Bank and the IMF, to be less sort of Reaganite in their economics, I think that they, and under the new World Bank President in ways that can do a lot of good, fighting AIDS internationally, preventing disease, there are a number of things we can do economically, internationally. And in fact if we cut the military budget, we can afford to do them twice as much as we do now, and still be saving a whole lot of money. But the time has come where we can block any of these specific interventions, demand that Congress reduce the military budget.

Who would shut sea lanes?
One last one that I want to address, and that’s that we need to have a big navy, as Romney, and Obama did do a very good job of defusing Romney on this with his number of ships. The argument for a big navy is that we have to keep open the sea lanes, because free trade is important to America. But who is the one country that even theoretically could shut down the sea lanes? It’s China. Now what happens over those sea lanes? China makes an enormous amount of money. [laughter] What conceivable reason does the Chinese have for interfering with the trade with America by which they make so much money? It’s not very smart.

Not total disarmament
That doesn’t mean that we totally disarm. I worry about the Persian Gulf, we can argue about this and that more. I worry about China. I thought, I was very sympathetic when the President of the Phillipines, the son of the martyred Benigno Aquino said don’t leave me alone with China, don’t let them dismember us. I think we could be working with an alliance of those threatened by China, not in military ways. But the country is ready, the country is ready and the challenge is ad hoc to get to the interventions.

Lobby Congress as the NRA does
Proposal: three steps. First, lobby members of Congress as if you were the NRA. [laughter] Don’t have a march, don’t have a demonstration, don’t go to Washington and think you’re going to have an impact on them. The last LGBT march on Washington, people said: “Don’t you think they were putting pressure on Congress?” In fact the only thing they were putting pressure on was the grass on the mall. Members of Congress don’t care who’s out there in the street, because they don’t know who is from their district and who isn’t. They want to hear from the people who are in their district. We can do that, so make them commit to getting out of Afghanistan, make them commit to reducing the military budget.

Pressure Presidential candidates
And get involved as the Democratic Presidential campaign begins, obviously it’s true of the Republicans, my guess is there’s much more involvement in the Democratic primary, and tell anybody who’s a candidate, whether it’s Hilary Clinton or anybody else that it’s time to stop this notion that we’re the indispensable nation, and that we want a president who will have a reasonable foreign policy, because that’s the way that you can get things reordered.

Working with former opponents we can succeed
I think those are three very practical steps people can take, which will be very well received. One last point, which is a sort of self-denial. As you work on these things, if people want to vote to get out of Afghanistan and reduce the military budget, don’t insist that they also confess to all these terrible sins on America’s part for the past 30 years. You don’t have to, we can put aside some disagreements over some of these things, ‘cause I think there is now broad public agreement on the goal of ending the interventionism and of reducing the military budget, and with the right kind of political action, I am now more optimistic about this than I have ever been.

Thank you. [applause]