In 2001, Lee was the only congressperson to vote against authorizing George W. Bush to use military force in Afghanistan. She’s stuck to her guns as the political landscape has shifted to align with her views—and she has some thoughts on Joe Biden’s withdrawal.
California congresswoman Barbara Lee faced one of the toughest weeks of her political career in September 2001. She had just voted against authorizing George W. Bush to use military force against anyone connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks—the only member of Congress to do so. The measure ultimately passed 420 to 1 in the House of Representatives; not a single senator opposed it. Lee found herself on an island alone, and her office started receiving death threats. Still, she stuck to her guns. “That authorization was so overly broad,” she told the Hive. “It set the stage for forever wars.”
Now, weeks before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and as the Taliban once again assume control of Afghanistan in a shocking wave of force that has left U.S. allies stranded, Lee reflects on her historic vote, its immediate aftermath, and the effects of a war that carried on in the background of four consecutive presidencies.
Barbara Lee: My chief of staff Sandré Swanson’s cousin Wanda Green was on Flight 93. I was sitting in the Capitol and had to evacuate and knew that Wanda had gone down—that those brave men and women on Flight 93 took that plane down. It was a tragic moment for me personally, as well as for the country and for the families and communities of those who had been so brutally hit. So that’s what I was feeling, and I think probably what most Americans were feeling, what most members of Congress were feeling. But I was also struggling with why I believed that I had to cast the “no” vote. That authorization was so overly broad, and it set the stage for forever wars; it gave up Congress’s requirement to declare war or authorize the use of force and not give it over to any president. So I was thinking about that at the same time.
It must have been difficult to cast that vote. But over the past two decades, there’s been a shift in public sentiment—not necessarily over the decision to go to Afghanistan in 2001, but certainly in support of a withdrawal. Do any moments stand out to you as when you understood this shift was happening and you became more aligned with the mainstream?
I think early on, the public—while they understood that we had to bring terrorists to justice and we could not allow terrorist attacks to occur—were concerned about the same issues I was concerned about, but not quite certain where this was going. I think things began to change when I started working with the late congressman Walter Jones and several Republicans and several Democrats who had voted for the authorization; they came to me and we said, “You’re absolutely right. We need to begin to work on repealing this.” And we were persistent. I mean, this was a movement led by the people. We had briefings on Capitol Hill; we were pushing for hearings; our outside groups, Win Without War, and other phenomenal organizations just kept at it.
In many ways I’m feeling the same way I felt on September 14, 2001, the day I voted against the authorization: the sadness, the grief, the anger. But I am very focused on what I can do to make sure that American citizens, our diplomats, NGOs, our Afghan allies, women and children are protected and brought to safe harbor. As chair of the appropriations subcommittee, I am very focused on humanitarian assistance—what more I can do to help in this terrible tragedy that is taking place. Are we going to get everyone out? Do they have enough money? Why can’t we get these visas processed more quickly? Quite frankly, I’ve been really disappointed at how it began, but I think now it’s getting under control.
How would you have liked to see the withdrawal handled?
For quite a while now, members of Congress, including myself, have been calling for the processing of visas to be handled in a way that would relax the bureaucracy. That processing could have taken place in a more efficient way. We provided the funds, and if they needed more funding, we would have certainly provided [it]. I’m not sure where the bottlenecks were, but that’s the one thing we have to figure out, because in an emergency like this, you can’t have bottlenecks that would, in many respects, put people in harm’s way. The next thing is how to make sure that women especially are escorted to the airport to be evacuated now that the Taliban is in control. We must have that system in place ahead of time.
I’m not sure what the preparation was ahead of time. But I do know that how Donald Trump handled it was totally inappropriate, and now of course President [Joe] Biden is owning it, which he should. With only 2,500 troops left as of May 1, we were never going to be able to push back the Taliban. So the decision was: Do you insert thousands more U.S. troops and continue with this forever war (which I believe in another 20 years, we would still be there because there’s no solution in Afghanistan), or do you begin the process of withdrawal?
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The president made the absolute right decision, but what the process was and [what] the execution of it is we have to learn. We have to unravel this and ask all of the questions because we can never allow this to happen again. We are in the process now.
What are your views on the messaging we’ve seen from the administration over the past week?
I think the president was honest, he was forthright, and he told the truth. Whether the message was received, we would have to ask people. But I’m confident that the president made the strongest case. He is recognizing, and he’s been honest about some of the huge flaws in the execution and indicating clearly that he owns it. It’s on his watch. So you have to give him a lot of credit for that.
Is there anything you think people are missing or should be paying attention to as we watch the situation unfold in Afghanistan?
People need to pay attention to several things. One is that the United States cannot nation-build around the world. What we had over the last 20 years was a military presence that was in the business of, for the most part, nation building. We did help women, and we have to figure out a strategy where we continue to make sure women not only are protected, but that they can move forward in their empowerment movement for education and for women’s rights. That’s an important piece that I’m going to work on with our subcommittee in terms of funding. But we cannot go around the world and nation-build.
Secondly, when you look at the over $2 trillion in taxpayer dollars to train 300,000 Afghan security forces, you realize we have to begin to rebalance our military and foreign policy. We have defense, development, and diplomacy. You look at the defense budget, it’s $740 billion. You look at my budget for development and diplomacy, it’s $62 billion. So c’mon, I think we can get a better bang for taxpayer dollars if we reinvest and rebalance these three legs of the stool.
We have to look at how to reenter the world in terms of our global leadership as it relates to peace and security. A lot of people don’t believe we should invest anything in foreign aid, but I think this moment should highlight the fact that we don’t spend that much on diplomacy and development. All of the resources are in the defense budget. We need to reimagine, rebalance, and reshape our spending priorities.
Are you optimistic that the public sentiment around anti-interventionism is here to stay?
I don’t even call it anti-interventionism. What I would say is that we need to look at how we fight for international human rights and how we engage as a respectful leader of other countries. We need to use our influence to lead in a way that says that we’re not going to use the military option first when there are disagreements or when there’s turmoil, but that we’re going to do everything else we can do first. We were an occupying force in Afghanistan, and that doesn’t bode well for our leadership in the world.
So you aren’t arguing in favor of isolationism, but rather that military force shouldn’t be our first response?
This pandemic has shown us we can’t be isolationist. We have to be part of the global community, the global family. We’ve got to engage in the world in a way that shows our leadership, our values, and our respect for human rights. It’s important that we recognize that we have more in common with the rest of the world than not. That’s not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. When we have national security threats, I believe in making sure we’re safe, the world is safe.
My dad was in the military for 25 years. I understand military language, rules of engagement. He was actually the first one when I voted “no” to call me to say that it was the right vote: “Don’t you send our troops into harm’s way unless you know the strategy, unless you know the exit strategy.” He was really on me, after I voted “no,” to stand my ground. I always like to remind people that our troops have done everything this country asked them to do based on the policy, and many of them were killed—close to 2,500. Many have long-standing, lifelong injuries; they’re just now beginning to put their lives back together. We have to honor and salute the troops for what they did, because they did everything this country asked them to do. I think in honoring them, we have to be more circumspect and more rational and more objective and clear on how we use our military might.