Rep. Barbara Lee, Sole Vote Against Unlimited War After 9/11, Demands Debate on New Military Action

November 18, 2015



Barbara Lee

Democratic congresswoman from California and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She is author of House Bill 1303, which would repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF. She cast the lone vote in Congress against the measure in 2001. She was honored last week with the Thomas Merton Award for her courageous advocacy for peace and justice.

Fourteen years ago, California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee cast the sole dissenting vote against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Three days after the Sept. 11 attacks, she took to the floor of the House and said: "Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, let’s step back for a moment. Let’s just pause just for a minute and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control." Rep. Lee is now calling on Congress to repeal the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for military force, saying they have been used as blank checks for endless war.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Barbara Lee, we want to go back to that moment 14 years ago when you cast the sole dissenting vote against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Let’s go back to that speech three days after September 11th attacks.

REP. BARBARA LEE: September 11th changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. This is a very complex and complicated matter.

Now, this resolution will pass, although we all know that the president can wage a war even without it. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, let’s step back for a moment. Let’s just pause, just for just a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.

Now, I have agonized over this vote. But I came to grips with it today. And I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful, yet very beautiful, memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore."

AMY GOODMAN: That was California Congressmember Barbara Lee speaking on September 14, 2001, three days after the 9/11 attacks. Congressmember Lee, you’re now calling on Congress to repeal the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for military force, saying they’ve been used as blank checks for endless war. Can you talk about who’s joining you in this call? When you made that speech 14 years ago, you got death threats, you had to get security around you.

REP. BARBARA LEE: Amy, those were very difficult days. We had been under a terrible attack. We lost many, many people. My chief of staff’s cousin, Wanda Green, unfortunately, was on Flight 93. We lost Wanda and all of the victims of the horrific attacks of 9/11 we still think about, pray for, and wonder how this could happen. And so, believe you me, during that moment, we had, I believe, then, the chance to really step out, continue with our mourning and anger, but, as members of Congress, try to come up with some rational approach to address terrorism in a way that did not cause more wars, more terrorist attacks and more violence.

Having said that, then the Iraq resolution came forward the next year, with this resolution as the basis for the Iraq resolution. And at this point, we asked the Congressional Research Service last year, Amy, to conduct a survey for us—it’s unclassified—to determine when and where these authorizations have been used. Well, over 30-some times they’ve been used in Somalia and Yemen, all around the world, for the use of force or for other types of indeterminate detentions, Guantánamo, wiretaps, you name it. And so, we need to go back now. This is a new day. This is another war that the United States is in. And, in fact, I think the public is demanding that we debate this, look at the costs and consequences, debate whether or not we should authorize another use of force. I’m not saying we should or should not, but minimally, our constitutional responsibility warrants that we do that.

Now, we have many members of Congress who have supported this effort. I mean, we—sometimes I have amendments to the appropriate bills, and I’ve—that would say, let’s repeal these authorizations. Congressman McGovern, Congressman Jones, others, in a bipartisan way, have stepped up and offered these amendments. And we probably get between 150 and 170 votes. Well, you know, in the House, it takes about—it takes 218 votes, and we have not gotten to that point yet. But I believe the more we talk about it, the more the public is going to demand that they understand what is taking place and engage in—and make us engage in doing our job the proper way and engage in a debate. Because three days after the horrific attacks of 9/11, I think we had a one-hour debate, Amy, on the use of force. That, to me, was just wrong. It abdicated our responsibility. We should have waited. We should have assessed what took place and come up with a comprehensive strategy in our response to 9/11. So I think we need to really go back now and have that debate, that we never had before, quite frankly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congresswoman Lee, your assessment of how President Obama is dealing with the situation currently? Obviously, he came into office vowing to end the wars in the Middle East. He has now extended the troops, ground troops, in Afghanistan through the end of his term and reinserted 50 more—or 50 ground troops now into Syria. Your sense of how he’s dealing with things?

REP. BARBARA LEE: Well, first, he certainly has shifted direction from the Bush administration. Of course, I am extremely concerned about the additional troops. I don’t support the use of ground troops. We understand this has got to be a regionally led commitment to dismantle and disable and rid the world, quite frankly, of ISIS. But it’s got to be regionally led. So I think the president is trying to calibrate this in a way that—and he has said he’s not going to send ground troops in, but I don’t want to see this mission creep occur on his watch. And he did send forward a resolution, under Speaker Boehner, last year for us to debate and to vote on, and Speaker Boehner never brought this resolution before us. And so, we’ve never even had a chance to look at what the president has done or is doing, and really have Congress either back it or not back it.

And so, I think what the president is saying now, though, is very important when he talks about the refugee crisis and how we should not shift our policy and how we need to continue to step up and do the right thing as Americans. And so, the president, I think, needs to have Congress weigh in on his strategy, because if we don’t weigh in, we’ve abdicated our responsibility to the administration. And, you know, then the public will never know what Congress’s will, which would be their will, would be as it relates to the escalation of the use of force in the region, which we have not authorized.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. has just sealed, the Obama administration, yet another arms deal with Saudi Arabia, in the last year signed the biggest arms deals in the history of the world with Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia behind a lot of the militant activism from al-Qaeda to ISIS. Do you condemn these sales?

REP. BARBARA LEE: Well, first, we need to reduce the sale of arms throughout the world. Also, I think when you look at the—for example, trying to rid Iran of the ability to develop nuclear weapons, we engaged in a strong, robust diplomatic effort. Many years ago, I introduced the first resolution calling for the end of no contact policy, for a special envoy and for us to begin to negotiate with Iran the elimination of their program of developing nuclear weapons. So far, those negotiations and that Iranian deal has worked. And so I think that we need to move in that direction in terms of diplomacy, in terms of trying to seek global peace and security without selling arms to all countries, because what you will have is an arms buildup throughout the world, and then weapons will be pointed at—each country will have weapons—of course, a nuclear weapon is the ultimate weapon—pointed in all directions. And so, we need to determine ways, as the president has done with regard to Iran, ways in which to engage to reduce the threats and to reduce the sale and the use of force and armaments and military weapons, because these can only make the world more dangerous.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering what advice you might have to parliamentarians in France now, as France is going through the same kind of crisis that this country went through after the attacks of 2001. The president is now seeking authorization from the French Parliament for extraordinary measures in his country. What advice might you give to the parliamentarians of France?

REP. BARBARA LEE: Well, first, my thoughts and prayers go out to the people of France. They’re really in a moment of sorrow and pain. We feel the tragedy and the pain that they’re suffering through. Of course, France is one of our oldest—is our oldest ally. And we have many, many connections, many relationships, our foreign policy. We have many similarities to the French people, and so we have to really feel what has taken place and support the French people throughout this terrible, difficult moment.

My only suggestion would be to debate this, to listen, to look at all of the alternatives, and to not rush to judgment. Whatever the Parliament decides, I think it takes a methodology and strategy that really will keep the country safe and that will ensure that violence is reduced, rather than engage in actions that would create more havoc and more violence. But I tell you, that’s up to the French Parliament and the French people to determine how best they want to respond as a country.

AMY GOODMAN: If war were not an option, Congressmember Lee, the U.S. spending actually trillions of dollars on war, when you look at all of the costs, including soldiers coming home deeply wounded and being cared for for the rest of their lives, not to mention the havoc on the ground in the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria, what is the option? What is the foreign policy that you would design?

REP. BARBARA LEE: The foreign policy that I would design—and I have legislation that sort of sets out, for example, what a roadmap to a strategy in the Middle East would be as it relates to ISIS, and that’s looking at not the military option as the first option, Amy—that’s always going to be there—but looking at how we can support and enhance a regionally led strategy that would lead to a political and diplomatic settlement. The people have to be empowered. They have to feel that their countries are including them in the government and in all of the development and the fabric of their governments. That’s not happening in many countries in the world. And so we have to have a regionally led strategy. And my legislation lays that out.

Of course, as I said earlier, the military option is going to always be there. We can’t say that the use of force or military action is never acceptable. But we have to try other methods first, if we really want to achieve global peace and security. And I think that’s what many members of Congress are saying, regardless of the extremely right-wing responses. We have to, as leaders, really lay out a vision and an alternative, and hopefully have a debate on what those alternatives are, because our veterans have come home, many can’t even get a job, many are homeless. I’m the daughter of a veteran. And, Amy, I’m telling you, we—our veterans have paid us a very heavy price. They’ve served this country well. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do. Yet we cannot seem to figure out ways to insure their health, their mental health, their security. Of course, we’ve done much better under this administration. And when—of course, as I have to say, when Speaker Pelosi was speaker during those years, we did invest more in our veterans and in their security, economic security, healthcare and mental health. But we haven’t done everything we should do, and we need to do more for our veterans. We need—I’m on the veterans subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. And believe you me, we need many more efforts and many more resources put into the veterans’ initiatives that we all support.

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