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Barney Frank Is Tired of Hearing "Obama This, Obama That"

As the first of what will be semi-regular chats with former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, I called him up on Monday to hear his opinions on Syria, Obama’s second-term agenda, and Larry Summers vs. Janet Yellen at the Fed.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you think that Obama’s going to get this vote on Syria through Congress?

Barney Frank: Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a possible way. There are people who would have a much better idea of that than I would.

IC: Do you talk to any old friends in the House about what they’re thinking?

BF: I’ve talked to exactly three members. I’m living in Maine and Massachusetts now. I haven’t been in Washington since June 26. I’m going there this weekend, but I haven’t been there. I don’t understand why people in your position, when I tell you I don’t know much, want to push me to guess.

IC: I don’t want to push you.

BF: I haven’t been there in a month and I haven’t talked to more than five members.

IC: Okay, then. I was just curious if you had an opinion. So, let me ask you this: What do you think the consequences of a no vote are?

BF: Will we all please stop saying this is about 'Obama this, Obama that'? … Even though I would vote yes, I’m happy to see others’ opposition, because I think it shows that the American people finally have gotten over this notion that we have to overspend on the military to intervene everywhere. Frankly, [why can’t we] take all this energy about Syria and put it into Afghanistan, where we should pull out. So I think it’s a very good sign that the American people are suddenly ready to stop these successive interventions, because the logical step is, if you’re not going to do this, then you don’t really need that big a military. In terms of the president, he’ll still be the president and he’ll go on to other issues, and I don’t think it’ll be a problem.

IC: It seems like you’re saying if they vote it down, that’s a positive sign in some ways. But you are in favor of them voting for it.

BF: Oh, yes, I would vote for it. But what I hear from people, from citizens, is that there’s going to be another long engagement in Syria. I’m confident that it won’t be, and I believe there’s no pressure but that it will be a very short, quick intervention. That’s all that I’m worried about. I’m more worried about Afghanistan. That’s the one that troubles me. We’re still there and you ought to pull them out quickly.

IC: So you favor something along the lines of what Obama’s talking about—a limited strike to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons and nothing more?

BF: Yes, exactly. And I am confident that’s all that will be done. I did write an article that … ran Sunday that you have to be sure that you don’t get another Gulf of Tonkin resolution or even a 9/11 resolution, which is too open-ended. And I do believe if Assad has used chemical weapons with no penalty that other people are more inclined to use them in the future. This reduces one of the few constraints we have against barbarism internationally.

IC: Yeah, although the last time someone used chemical weapons, which was Saddam against both the Iranians and Kurds, nobody did anything, and it didn’t seem like that led to a huge uptick in use.

BF: But he actually used them first against the Iranians. It doesn’t mean that—nothing is absolute.

IC: Right now it looks a little bleak on the vote for Obama in Congress. Do you think that his not great relations on the Hill have hurt him here?

BF: No. If something is important it’s not a matter of who got invited to coffee. This is people feeling the heat from their constituents.

IC: And obviously a lot of Republicans are voting against it because they don’t like Obama, and nothing was going to change that.

BF: Yeah, I mean people greatly exaggerate the personal. You know in September of 2008, we worked very closely with George Bush. It wasn’t because George Bush had been nice to me.

IC: What do you make of Ed Markey, Kerry’s replacement in the Senate from your home state, voting present in the Foreign Relations Committee?

BF: Well, I think that was a mistake. I think he should have made up his mind. I know he stands in the … he was still sort of repenting his Iraq position. And I think that’s—you know, I voted against Iraq. I don’t have that on my conscience.

IC: I’ve seen a lot of what I think is pretty silly commentary about how Syria will derail a bunch of Obama’s other agenda, like immigration. Do you think there’s anything to that?

BF: Oh, no. For immigration, it’s dying from the right wing of the Republican Party. In fact in some ways it could help him. Especially with a lot of Democrats who vote against him. If you’re voting against the president of your party on a big one, you work up the ways to make it up to him, and they’re more likely to be helpful to him on something else.

IC: How confident are you about coming to some sort of debt ceiling solution, and how much do you think the White House has learned from the last go-around?

BF: I think he learned a lot…. By the way, I think this greatly undercuts the Republican position. How in the world do you say “I’m voting to send Americans to another military effort—oh and by the way, I’m going to shut the government down?” You want to shut down the FBI but bomb Syria? What do you tell the guys who are flying the planes—“oh by the way, we’re not sure your wife and kids are going to be taken care of back at the base.”

IC: I don’t mean this cynically, but I wonder if the White House made that calculation.

BF: I don’t think so but I hope they understand the leverage this gives them.

IC: And one last thing I wanted to ask you about, since you work so much on these issues, is what do you make of the Summers versus Yellen fight?

BF: That’s too personally engaging for me.

IC: Personally engaging how? What do you mean by that?

BF: Oh, I have a lot of friends involved. It’s choosing among friends. I don’t want to do that. I mean if I’m still in Congress then I have an obligation to do it. But the nice thing about retirement is you get to pick and choose which fights you want to be involved in.

IC: So you don’t feel a responsibility to me that equals your responsibility to your former constituents?

BF: Um…

IC: I was kidding.

BF: I am a private citizen now. I have opinions on some things and not others. I want to do what’s right for the country, but when there’s this degree of personal involvement, I want to have no role in any way.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.