If Only We’d Listened to Representative Barbara Lee

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Representative Barbara Lee tried to warn us. Three days after the September 11 attacks, the California Democrat stood on the House floor and implored her colleagues to vote against a resolution that would give President George W. Bush a sweeping, open-ended authorization to use military force. “Some of us,” Lee said, should show restraint in the midst of the nation’s grieving and really consider the implications of what they were voting for.

“We must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target,” Lee continued, a Cassandra cursed with being able to predict the future but not be believed by the people around her. “We cannot repeat past mistakes.”

“Some of us” turned out to be just her. The resolution, which led to Afghanistan’s invasion shortly after, passed 420-1 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. The backlash against Lee was swift and brutal. She was harassed and received death threats to the point that she was given around-the-clock security. Her critics called her a traitor. But two decades later, as the Afghanistan government collapses following the United States’ retreat, she has been vindicated. Not that she’s glad to have been right.

The Cut spoke with Lee about her decision to vote against the resolution — which has yet to be repealed — and the main lesson she wishes we learn from our failed forever war.

Congresswoman, take me back to September 2001.

The September 11 terror attacks created a moment in time that we’ll never forget. So many people died, and so many people have permanent, lifelong injuries. So many people lost family and friends. It was a traumatic, horrific time for everyone, including myself. Wanda Green, the cousin of my chief of staff, Sandré Swanson, was on Flight 93. We had to evacuate that morning because they thought Flight 93 could come into the Capitol. She was a flight attendant, and they took the plane down in Pennsylvania.

We’re still dealing with that trauma, sadness, and grief. Back then, I didn’t believe that three days after these terrible attacks, while the country was still quite firmly mourning and angry that we should pass anything that was not thoughtful, that was not appropriate in response to the attack.

Why did you decide to vote against the resolution?

Believe you me, I’m not a pacifist. I do believe we must bring terrorists to justice, that we can’t allow this to happen in our country at all. It was more about, How do we do this when the country is in mourning? How can we pass an authorization that gives away Congress’s constitutional requirements to declare war and authorize the use of force?

This authorization was a blank check. It was 60 words that just gave President Bush and any future president, to this second, the authority to go to war. It was an overly broad authorization that I thought would lead to more havoc, more danger. It was not thought through; it was not debated. It was not authorization that I could support.

The Constitution required me to vote no. There was no way. My moral compass and my faith told me we had to try to find solutions that diminished the possibility of violence, even though we do have to bring those who harm us to justice. We didn’t have enough time to determine if the military actually was our only option that would do this.

My dad was a military officer. He was the first one who called me afterward and said that that was the right vote. He knew that you don’t send our troops anywhere without a clear strategy, without Congress being clear about what they’re authorizing. It was giving up our congressional responsibilities.

Why do you think you were the only one? I’m sure that some of your colleagues shared some of the same concerns at the time, but they still voted yes.

You need to talk to them or read the congressional record. [Laughs.] I always say members of Congress are also human beings. They were angry and grieving. And my sense is that at that moment, people were demanding we be unified with the president and not make this a partisan issue. The perception of Democrats going against Republicans, or a partisan fight, may have been part of it. I really don’t know. I just came to the conclusion that for me personally, I wasn’t going to cast a vote that I did not know what the outcome would have been. No one did.

What was their reaction to your vote?

Initially, there was a lot of hate and a lot of death threats. I had to have security full time. I couldn’t travel. It was pretty bad. An opponent of mine went to New York and marched in — I think it was the Veterans Day Parade with Rudy Giuliani. He was saying, “Barbara Lee hates America,” with my face on a poster, smiling in front of the World Trade towers burning. Can you believe that? People called me a traitor, said they were going to kill me, called me all kinds of racist and sexist names. It was just horrible.

On the other hand, there were so many people who supported and understood why I said no. Bishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, and more than 60,000 Americans let us know through phone calls, messages, cards, and letters that are there in the congressional record.

The glass half full was the understanding, and the glass half empty was dangerous.

I cannot imagine the extent of the hatred you received. During those days, did you ever regret your vote?

No, I didn’t, because I knew it was the right decision. I didn’t make it lightly. I’m a person of faith, so of course I prayed over it. I talked to my pastor. I talked to many constitutional attorneys. I talked with my dad, who was a retired lieutenant colonel.

Former congressman Ron Dellums, my predecessor, had chaired the Armed Services Committee. He never suggested how I should vote, but we talked about the dynamics around what was taking place in the country. He was a psychiatric social worker, and we talked about how when you’re in the midst of an emotional crisis, when you’re in the midst of grieving — that’s the worst time to make big decisions because you probably will make the wrong decisions based on emotion.

I never regretted it one day, even with all the death threats. I knew I just had to survive, not look back, and try to educate the public and members of Congress as to why I think that we should repeal that authorization. It would be used to establish the framework for forever wars, and that’s not something members of Congress should tolerate. I’ve kept that stand while recognizing everybody has different points of view.

Now it’s 20 years later and we’ve seen the impact of those forever wars. What are your main concerns right now with the situation in Afghanistan?

Our main concern is the evacuation of Americans and our Afghan allies, journalists, women, everyone who helped the United States during this period. We owe them a heck of a lot, first of all. I think the evacuation process is beginning to be a bit more orderly, but we owe them safe passage, and we’ve got to increase the number of the cap on refugees. We must work on an international level to get countries to agree to accept refugees, to help them with the resettlement.

I chair the Foreign Affairs subcommittee, which funds some of what we have to do, and so I’m laser focused on that. If we need to increase resources, how do we do that through whatever legislative strategy and appropriation strategy I have in my tool kit? Right now, it’s very critical.

With our allies in the international community, we need to figure out how to protect women and their safety, how to find pathways to supporting women’s education, women’s empowerment, and women’s political power — everything that women in Afghanistan deserve.

What would you say to constituents who are worried about the current situation?

We’re doing casework right now to help with the special immigrant visas. We’ve appropriated money; we passed a bill that was over a billion dollars to help. We’re working day and night — we’re doing everything we can do to help expedite the process to get people the heck out of there, to keep them from being possibly killed.

In your view, what is the biggest lesson we should learn from the past 20 years?

President Biden was right. I firmly support his decision. We would have had another 20 years of being in the midst of a civil war and nation-building. Now, we have to be very reflective and know that we can’t nation-build all over the world, but we do have diplomacy and diplomatic tools in our hands to be able to rebalance how we engage in the world through seeking global peace and security.

And I chair the subcommittee, again, that funds a lot of what we’re doing now. My budget is $62 billion. The defense budget is about $740 billion. How do we reprioritize development, diplomacy, and humanitarian assistance instead of looking at the military option as the first option? We have to reimagine how we do the work of peace and security in the world by looking at how we spend our tax dollars.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

If Only We’d Listened to Representative Barbara Lee