By Mike Lillis
A leading House Democrat went after President Obama on Tuesday for signaling that some U.S. troops could remain in Iraq past the year-end withdrawal deadline.
Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.) said the country cannot afford the continued intervention, which he suggested is not working in any event.
"We are now spending $120 billion a year in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And incredibly, President Obama -- who I strongly support in general -- is contemplating staying in Iraq even longer than George Bush wanted to," Frank told an animated crowd of liberal activists gathered in Washington for the Take Back the American Dream conference.
"That is totally unacceptable, and we must make that very clear."
Frank, senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, said the money would be better spent on domestic projects and job-creation efforts.
"If I thought our interventions did a lot of good, I would be conflicted. But we often do more harm than good," he said. "I want to put more money into helping hungry children and fighting AIDS."
The Pentagon has already begun withdrawing thousands of troops from Iraq -- part of the current Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Washington and Baghdad, which requires a full withdrawal by the end of the year. But most top Iraqi officials have said some U.S. troops will have to stay beyond that deadline to keep the peace and train local forces.
Officials in both the Pentagon and the White House say they soon expect Baghdad to request a formal extension of the SOFA -- including retention of some U.S. troops -- although the numbers and the timeline remain unclear.
Joining Frank, some Senate Democrats have also called recently for a full withdrawal from Iraq before 2012.
"We should bring the last of them home on schedule," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.)" said last month.
Despite the criticism of the White House over Iraq, Frank on Tuesday directed his sharpest attacks at Republicans for prioritizing foreign military operations above domestic programs. As the budget supercommittee searches for trillions of dollars in federal savings, Frank argued, they should focus most intently on Pentagon cuts.
"The biggest single chunk of deficit reduction must come from scaling back our enormous military expenditures from where they now are to where our legitimate needs are," Frank said.
"There is no way at all to do a socially responsible deficit-reduction plan -- no way to do a long-term deficit reduction [plan] which preserves our ability to protect the quality of life here in this country, and elsewhere in the world -- without very substantial reductions in military spending."
Frank was quick to note the importance of maintaining a powerful military to protect U.S. interests, weaker allies and the homeland -- but with limitations.
"I do want the U.S. Air Force to be the largest air force in the world," he said. "But I don't think the U.S. Navy has to be the second largest air force in the world for us to be safe. I'd be happy if the Navy was tied for fourth."
The threat of terrorism, he argued, is nothing like that posed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
"It is not an existential threat to the United States," he said. "You don't defeat terrorism with nuclear submarines. I wish you did, because we have them and they don't. It would be over."
The outspoken Massachusetts liberal also urged the elimination of substantial U.S. forces in Europe, arguing that the political climate requiring those troops is long gone.
"Harry Truman, I think, did a great thing in 1949 when he went to the aid of a beleaguered, poor, war-broken Western and Central Europe threatened by Stalin," Frank said. "Europe's no longer weak and poor; Stalin is fortunately long dead and his successors crumbled; the only thing that hasn't changed is America continues to subsidize heavily the defense of the wealthy nations of Western Europe against non-existent threats."
Those dynamics, Frank quipped, are reminiscent of the classic fence-painting scene in Tom Sawyer.
"People have figured out how to get America to paint the fence and act like we're being done a favor," he said.
The 12-member supercommittee is required to identify at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by Nov. 23 or that amount in automatic cuts -- split evenly between defense and non-defense spending -- will kick in.
Frank said Congress could double those figures from Pentagon cuts alone, "and be a stronger, better and happier nation."
His comments arrive as Republican defense hawks are stepping up their opposition to steep Pentagon cuts as part of Congress's deficit-reduction efforts. GOP staffers on the House Armed Services Committee floated a report this week warning that cuts deeper than the $350 billion agreed to as part of the August debt deal would reduce the military to pre-9/11 levels, putting some of the biggest weapons programs "at risk."
Frank, for one, isn't convinced, hammering conservatives for opposing government spending unless it's on the military.
"There's a new economic doctrine: Military Keynesianism," Frank said. "According to [conservatives], public spending does not create jobs when we support state and local governments; it doesn't create jobs when we build infrastructure; it only does it when we have bases in Germany and Japan, which have no earthly function other than to make some people in the Pentagon happy."