The ‘temptation’ of military leadership: Resist, urges Barney Frank

Retired but seldom retiring, Barney Frank, the sharp-tongued former chair of the House Financial Services Committee, namesake of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, believes America is depleting its resources — not to mention the goodwill of its citizens — to fight a ghost.

Barney Frank

Former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank at I-House: “Why does anybody have to be the leader?” (UC Berkeley photos by Peg Skorpinski)

“We have been persuaded significantly to exaggerate the military requirements of protecting our national security,” he declared in a campus talk Wednesday night. Neither an isolationist nor a fan of international villains like Vladimir Putin and ISIS, he nonetheless insisted they are not the threat to America once posed by Hitler and Stalin — a threat that prompted the United States to ramp up military spending for a protracted Cold War following World War II.

Frank recalled how the collapse of the Soviet Union brought a downturn in Defense Department spending — a trend that ended with 9/11, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his fellow neoconservatives “successfully managed to persuade America for a while that terrorists were the functional equivalent of the Nazis and the Communists.”

The subsequent spike in the military budget, he added, was exacerbated by “George Bush’s contribution to economic theory, for which I do not think he will get a Nobel Prize, namely that you could finance two wars with five tax cuts.”

Promotional materials from the Goldman School of Public Policy, which sponsored Frank’s campus appearance, had promised a talk bearing a sober, academy-friendly title, “Reducing the Military Budget: Necessary to Improve Our Quality of Life.”

But by the time the 16-term Massachusetts Democrat took the stage Wednesday at International House, he’d come up with a pithier, more characteristically sardonic one: “Tempt Us Not Into Leadership.”

Frank and Henry Brady

After his talk, Frank sat for a Q&A session moderated by Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy.

Frank stressed that he wants the United States to remain the strongest military power in the world, but mocked the notion — prevalent not just on the right, he noted, but in the rhetoric of President Obama as well — that “our greatness depends on our being leaders in the world.”

“I have no idea what that means,” he said. “Why? Where are we leading people, who are we leading, and why is it important to be the leader? Why does anybody have to be the leader?”

The cost of our need to “lead,” in Frank’s view, has been dramatically reduced spending on vital domestic programs, along with a growing cynicsm about the ability of government to serve Americans’ needs at home.

“People are disappointed in the performance of government, and express that by voting for people who hate government,” he said, “so that the performance gets worse and worse, and they get angrier and angrier. And that’s where we are.”

He wants to break that vicious cycle, he said, by diverting “at least” 20 percent of the nation’s military budget — cuts he insists would pose no risk to national security — to domestic needs like improving environmental cleanup, public transportation, infrastructure and higher education, and to expanding Social Security and Medicare, “the two most successful anti-poverty programs in the history of this country.”

Frank said he favors sending weapons to Ukraine, for example, but that our intervention in the Middle East — even discounting the financial costs — has been more counterproductive than helpful to the cause of peace in the world. European nations, meanwhile, are happy to have the United States bear the burden of military leadership around the world, and to deploy their own resources to domestic needs.

“Much of what we spend on our military is irrelevant to the fight against terrorism,” he said. “Nuclear missile-carrying submarines are irrelevant to the fight against terrorism.”

Should America heed his advice — that is, give up the mantle of military leadership, and settle for merely remaining the strongest military power on earth — “I guarantee you there will be no reduction in American national security. Nor will there be any substantial reduction in our ability to do good things in the world. Because much of the spending, I believe, has been either useless or, in some cases, has done more harm than good.”

The choice, said Frank, is simple.

“Either we make substantial cuts in the military budget,” he said, “or forget about trying to improve the quality of life through any expansion of government activity, and accept the fact that we will be condemned to an indefinite period where people don’t like government, and then vote for people who are against the government.

“And so,” he added, “it gets worse and worse.”