BOSTON – Known for a biting wit and relentless candor, former US congressman Barney Frank is pursuing a long-incubated retirement mission — to trim US military spending by about $100 billion a year, every year, for many years to come.
Calling the military “overloaded” to the point of “making it impossible to improve the quality of our lives at home and to help people abroad,” Frank addressed congregants at Boston’s Temple Israel last Friday during an event tied to his memoir, “Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage,” released earlier this year.
During his half-hour remarks, the agnostic Jewish icon voiced support for an 87-minute documentary about his epic career, “Compared to What? The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank,” set to premiere Friday night on Showtime. The “intimate portrait” blends Frank’s private and professional lives, notably the years between coming out as the country’s first gay congressman in 1987, and three years ago, when he became the first person in Congress to marry a same-sex partner.
As printed on the memoir jacket, “How did a disheveled, intellectually combative gay Jew with a thick accent become one of the most effective (and funniest) politicians of our time?”
The answer, Frank will tell you, is by forging relationships.
From AIDS awareness to gun control, Frank has been at the epicenter of issues faced by Congress since the early 1980s. His no-nonsense, feisty charm endeared him to constituents like his district’s large Portuguese community, as well as voters angry with Wall Street following the financial crisis eight years ago.
Frank served Massachusetts’ 4th District for a whopping three decades, never receiving less than two-thirds of the vote in an election. Though out of office for two years, his name still appears in the news and presidential primary debates, often tied to the Dodd-Frank Act he co-authored to reform financial markets in 2010.
There’s also his staunch, career-long support of Israel, sometimes bemoaned by far-Left Democrats who see the Jewish state as the obstacle to Mideast peace. Before he explained his rationale behind trimming the US military, Frank addressed recent terrorist attacks in Israel that have been dubbed by some as a third Palestinian “intifada.”
Calling the spate of attacks “an outrage, with no justification,” Frank praised the Israeli government for “a response more restrained than almost any government I can think of.”
When it came to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, Frank displayed his ongoing frustration with the Israeli leader’s actions.
“You can be anti-Netanyahu and pro-Israel,” said Frank, who levelled criticism against Netanyahu for addressing Congress in an effort to scuttle the administration-supported Iran nuclear deal.
Claiming President Barack Obama “is and will be very supportive” of the Jewish state, Frank later told The Times of Israel that “it’s lucky [Obama] is ignoring their abuse,” referring to some US Jewish leaders’ loud displeasure with the administration’s efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Less scornful of Netanyahu, Frank told the audience that only three heads of state have spoken about gay rights from the rostrum of the US House of Representatives: former president Bill Clinton, Obama, and Israel’s current prime minister.
“Not having anybody to spare, [Israel] has been averse to that kind of bigotry for a long time,” said Frank about the Israel Defense Forces’ inclusion of openly gay soldiers.
The former congressman’s assessment of the US military was more biting, especially coming after such rosy words about Israel.
Warning against the current spiral of increased military spending, Frank said government-funded social programs will not expand unless military budgets are concurrently reduced. Calling the US military’s mission “overloaded,” and some of its missions “unrealistic,” he dubbed the US war in Iraq “a terrible mistake that cost $1-trillion.”
“The military cannot bring order out of the chaos in a country,” said Frank, referencing Iraq and Afghanistan. “We can never get out [of conflicts] because [our allies] weren’t able to win without us to begin with,” he intoned.
Without steadily reducing military spending, said Frank, there will be no fulfillment of “all the rhetoric about reducing inequality.” By way of specific suggestions, he urged a withdrawal of US forces from Europe, claiming our allies are capable of facing down Russia, against whose territorial ambitions the US should fund Ukraine, added Frank.
Though critical of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation” view of American intervention, Frank said the country remains capable of achieving daunting goals abroad, including the rolling back of Ebola in Liberia. He said some US military interventions are worthwhile, particularly if there is “a stable society” in place.
“I think I was wrong,” Frank said about his 1991 vote against sending the military to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait. During a post-talk Q&A, he also said president Clinton “was right to intervene by air power in the former Yugoslavia.”
In time, Frank hopes Americans will come to view the military as he does: full of excellent soldiers, but drowning in massive appropriations for new weapons that may or may not be wanted by any branch of the service. During the Q&A, he also tied ballooning defense spending to climate change, saying “the military is the great contributor to the degradation of the climate.”
As the liberal legend told The Times of Israel after his remarks, “People have to make this their issue. When organizations lobby for funding, they need to request parallel decreases in military funding, and they need to connect the dots,” said Frank, all too aware of the herculean task of shrinking American defense spending to bolster social programs.