"The North Vietnamese never bombed American cities"

Progressive congressman Barney Frank talks about why he supports the war, opposes Bush's attack on civil liberties and thinks Clinton's military legacy is just fine.

Published November 22, 2001 8:35PM (EST)

Ever since the Vietnam War, the American left has tended to be pacifistic and deeply suspicious of overseas military expeditions. An entire generation of liberals grew to equate B-52 airstrikes with blood-and-iron imperialism. Think the Empire's towering killing machines mowing down the helpless Ewoks in "Return of the Jedi." Even when times changed and U.S. firepower was used for heroic purposes -- such as the Clinton administration's air assault against the genocidal Milosevic regime in the Balkans -- many on the left (and the right, for that matter) remained stuck in the past, convinced that the bombing was part of an imperialist power grab or that America was headed toward another Apocalypse Now.

It's a political version of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and considering the epic horror of Vietnam, it was understandable. But a quarter century later, we face a world that has its own new nightmares. Since Sept. 11, the Vietnam generation has been forced to reassess its views of American military might and most, like the Afghan people cheering in the streets of Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, have come to see the U.S. war machine more as a liberator than an oppressor.

While Berkeley congresswoman Barbara Lee received massive media coverage for casting the sole vote against President Bush's war resolution, the more representative voices of the Vietnam generation belong to political leaders like John Kerry in the Senate and Barney Frank in the House of Representatives. Rep. Frank, D-Mass., who has served in Congress for over 20 years, has staked out a strong pro-war position, while simultaneously lashing into the Bush administration for trampling on civil liberties in its anti-terror drive (joining other critics like conservative congressional leader Bob Barr) and calling on the president to help secure peace abroad by rebuilding Afghanistan and aggressively pursuing a Mideast settlement. Salon spoke with Frank by phone in his Capitol Hill office on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday.

What do you say to your friends on the left who attack the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and compare it to the Vietnam War?

Well, first of all, the North Vietnamese never bombed American cities. Some antiwar critics have accused me of voting for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution all over again when I voted for Bush's war resolution. But the World Trade Center was actually bombed. Those Navy ships in Vietnam probably never were.

Secondly, we backed the wrong horse in Vietnam. Osama bin Laden is no Ho Chi Minh, who actually had the support of many Vietnamese. Bin Laden brought his war to Afghanistan and he's not even an Afghan! He's wildly unpopular there. If I had lived in Vietnam, I would not have wanted to live under a communist regime. But the fact is Ho's government was very popular there.

Osama bin Laden has no humane values. He's a mass murderer who happens, unfortunately, to be very skillful at it. And you'd have to go back to Mao, Stalin and Hitler -- or perhaps Pol Pot -- to find a more noxious regime than the Taliban. So I think there's a moral as well as pragmatic case for our war against bin Laden and the Taliban that was lacking in Vietnam.

You hear people say that since Sept. 11 Americans have lost their innocence. But I think it's more profound than that. I think we've lost our sense of guilt, which we've had ever since Vietnam. The left-wing critics of the war in Afghanistan represent a tiny slice of the population. American people across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support the war, because they know it is overwhelmingly just.

What about the antiwar claim that civilian casualties in Afghanistan undermine the moral legitimacy of the U.S. campaign?

Any time you go to war, civilians suffer. There were civilian casualties in World War II as well -- in Germany, Italy and Japan. Civilians died during Sherman's march to the sea. You have a moral obligation to minimize these casualties, and I think the U.S. military in Afghanistan has gone to great lengths to do this. In fact, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld was criticized in some circles for holding back our military.

Some antiwar critics have been clamoring for a ground war, saying there would be fewer civilian deaths. But ground troops kill innocent people too, it's a fact of war. War is not like "The Lone Ranger" where the good guy shoots the gun out of the bad guy's hand and that's the end of it. Because civilians inevitably suffer in wars, you have a moral obligation to make sure that going to war is the last alternative. But with bin Laden, this clearly was the only option. If we had not responded militarily, bin Laden would have struck again and many more innocent people would have died.

Now that our military strategy in Afghanistan seems to be meeting with stunning success, some in the Bush administration, like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice have been suggesting that Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq may be our next target. Do you think the U.S. should extend its military operation into other parts of the Islamic world?

We might very well find that Saddam is guilty of sponsoring terrorism against the U.S. But before we think about extending the war, we've got to make sure that the people of Afghanistan have food and shelter. We did that in Europe after World War II with the Marshall Plan, and even General [Douglas] MacArthur -- who was no liberal paragon -- did a fine job of overseeing the reconstruction of Japan. We need to earn the right to extend the war by rebuilding Afghanistan first.

It's not only the right thing to do, but it is politically vital. By helping Afghanistan, we will send a message to the rest of the Muslim world that we weren't just concerned about avenging American deaths and screw everyone else, but we want to leave that country in a much better place than it was before we intervened.

But if the U.S. delivers on its promise of rebuilding Afghanistan, and meanwhile, clear evidence emerges that Saddam is pursuing a clandestine war against America, what should be our response? Should we apply the Afghanistan model, as Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya argues in Wednesday's New York Times, and provide strong military support for the Iraq's anti-Saddam forces?

Well, first of all, I'm skeptical those Saddam opponents have the horses. Saddam is an evil ruler but practicality must be an issue here. I'm skeptical that his opponents would be as effective as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, even with our backing. What they really want is U.S. military intervention, to fight their war for them.

Secondly, I want to know what a U.S. war against Iraq would do to those regimes in the Arab world that are friendly to the U.S. -- for instance King Abdullah of Jordan and Mubarak of Egypt. This would the second American war in a row against an Islamic regime and the reaction in that part of the world could create overwhelming political pressures on those governments. Look, Mubarak is no prize, he's terrible on human rights and the recent outburst of official homophobia there is disgusting. But if Mubarak is toppled, we might very well get something worse.

Finally, I would want to assess how bloody a war against Saddam would be, how many casualties we'd be facing. That's a moral consideration as well as a practical one, because high casualties quickly become a political factor.

Do you think a foreign power or terrorist network is behind the anthrax mail attacks in the U.S.?

No. Thank God the anthrax campaign has been largely ineffective. It's clearly much less organized than the Sept. 11 attacks. So I don't think we're looking at a government operation or al-Qaida, who were lethally well organized. So it does seem like a case of domestic terrorism. But who exactly did it? Nobody knows for sure. It's premature to speculate.

There was a story in the New York Times today about an anti-government zealot named Timothy Tobiason, who goes around the gun-show circuit selling do-it-yourself anthrax terrorism manuals. Do you think the Justice Department is being sufficiently aggressive in monitoring people like this?

Well, even right-wing nuts have rights too. But there clearly seems to be as much or more reason to pull in someone like this for questioning as there is for rounding up 5,000 young guys for being Muslim.

Are you concerned about the Justice Department's anti-terror tactics?

Some of them. I think secretly listening in on lawyer-client conversations is terrible. And while we might need military tribunals for some of the people we capture in Afghanistan, I think the argument that our legal system can't deal with terrorists is simply not true. We've convicted a number of terrorists in our courts, including the first World Trade Center bombers. Our problem is not that we're unable to successfully try and convict these people, it's more a problem of finding out who they are and where they're hiding. Once we find them, our legal system has performed very effectively.

I'm afraid that the administration's anti-terror measures, along with the Justice Department's recent attacks on medical marijuana in California and assisted suicide in Oregon, show that they've decided to let [Attorney General] Ashcroft be Ashcroft. They think the war on terror gives them the cover to push through their agenda.

What lessons should the country learn from the war in Afghanistan?

Number one, our military has performed superbly. There has been all this huffing and puffing in the Republican Party about how Clinton weakened our military. Well, that's ridiculous. George Bush just pulverized the Taliban with the military that he inherited from Bill Clinton.

Number two, Bush has learned that you have to be engaged in the world or you're going to pay a price. When his administration took over, they were so eager to pull back from the Clinton peace process in the Middle East. And after Sept. 11, that disengagement policy put them in a box. They clearly had to restart the peace process, but it made them look like they were being pushed into it by the terrorist attacks, which in effect they were. Clinton didn't succeed in the Mideast but it wasn't for lack of trying, and he won legitimacy in the Muslim world for his efforts.

[Secretary of State] Colin Powell is now trying to get the peace process going again, which is very important. Since Sept. 11 Powell has been taken off bureaucratic life support. He is being allowed to be the secretary of state. Of course if Wolfowitz takes control of foreign policy, we're in big trouble.

We now realize that it's in America's interests to alleviate the poverty and despair in the Muslim world. Bush-style unvarnished capitalism is not going to lift that world. We need an international New Deal. And guess what, that means nation-building in places like Afghanistan -- that dread policy that Bush denigrated throughout the presidential race.

We know that nation-building works. Just look at the Balkans. After American bombing helped bring down the Milosevic regime, he ended up in The Hague and democracy is flourishing in the old Yugoslavia. Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia are success stories. The Republicans fought Clinton's policies there, but of course now they embrace Bush's bombing and nation-building in Afghanistan. They're totally hypocritical. Bush senior's secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleburger, kept him from going into Yugoslavia, so we had to deal with the catastrophe that developed there after he left the White House.

The current Bush administration pulled back from another area of the globe that could cause us a lot of trouble -- North Korea. After its crazy old dictator (Kim Il Sung) finally died, his son took over. He's no prize, but he seems a little less crazy. And [South Korean President] Kim Dae Jung's efforts to build peace between the two countries was a heroic effort. But then the Bush people decided to get hawkish and we deserted Kim, we pulled the rug out from under him. This problem has the potential to blow up in our face. We've got to engage again there.

Will the U.S. have the economic resources to rebuild Afghanistan?

Well, that's a good question. We would have under Clinton, with his tax increase and big surplus. But Bush has aggressively denuded the federal government of money with his tax cut. Now we have the slipping economy and the higher costs of security and our ability to help Afghanistan will impinge on our domestic spending. Of course this was the GOP's strategy all along -- they philosophically don't want the federal government to have money to spend. But now we're in a bind, because New York needs financial aid to rebuild and homelessness is on the rise and we need to hire airport security workers and we can't just walk away from Afghanistan without creating another foreign policy disaster there.

Bush senior used to say that we have more will than wallet. So he urged the country to attack poverty with a thousand points of light, none of which could be eaten. The Republicans don't want Washington to have a wallet. But if we don't spend money wisely now, it will cost us more in the future.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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