In 2001, three days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee was famously the lone member of either chamber of Congress to vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. (The House vote was 420-1.) Lee called the AUMF a “blank check” for presidents to wage war anywhere, any time.
Afghanistan is now the longest war in U.S. history. Last month, Lee, a Democrat, wrote a widely publicized op-ed in London’s The Guardian, criticizing President Obama’s recent suspension of a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops there. And for years, she’s been gathering Congressional support to repeal the AUMF.
“Barbara Lee,” writes political journalist and author John Nichols, “has always had the clearest vision when it comes to the U.S. role in Afghanistan — and the rest of the world.”
Lee, a leading Congressional voice for peace and social justice, has represented California’s East Bay area (including Oakland and Berkeley) since 1998. On Nov. 9, she visits Pittsburgh to accept the Thomas Merton Center’s highest honor, the peace-and-justice group’s annual Thomas Merton Award. The group cites her stands on everything from racism and criminal-justice reform to labor rights and ending the Cuban trade embargo.
Lee recently spoke with City Paper from her offices in Washington, D.C. — where she had just finished speaking on the House floor against a Republican-led “budget-reconciliation deal” that would have defunded Planned Parenthood.
How is your bill to repeal AUMF progressing?
I have over 150 [bipartisan] members now who have voted to repeal it. I’m going to continue to try to repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMF because if we don’t, we have the authorization there for perpetual war. … And we’ve got to come back and require Congress to do its job, and that’s have a debate and vote on any new authorities or declarations of war.
What’s the urgency?
The loss of life, the fact that so many of our young men and women have been injured, often with disabilities for life. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and I think a lot of members [of Congress] recognize that we need to be very careful when we put them into a war zone … when there’s no real military solution. And we see that now, over and over again, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. We have to have regional diplomatic and political settlements, if in fact we’re going to have and seek global peace and security. … I think a large percentage of the public really understands that we should not be in a state of perpetual war. It diminishes our capacity to provide for our domestic needs here at home.
On that 2001 AUMF vote, you’ve said that your training as a psychiatric social worker guided your decision.
My training … really helped me analyze the mood of the country.
After such a horrific attack, when so many people have died, and were injured, we’re angry. We’re very angry, we’re sad, depressed, we’re very in the moment in terms of our emotions. That’s not when you make decisions about your national security. … We only had about an hour debate on that resolution. …
You wait. You be deliberative, you be rational, you look at the facts. You have a full debate. You don’t want to create more havoc and more violence and more war. You want to, quite naturally, respond appropriately. And I’m not saying we should allow anyone to get away with what took place, in terms of the terrorist attack. But you have to be clear on how you do this.
What about the role of the defense lobby in all this?
The defense lobby. Oh boy. They’re pretty active. Wars do create economic opportunities and profits. It’s a combination of things. But you know the military-industrial complex is real. … And one of the areas I’ve been working on for years is I’ve been trying to get bipartisan support for auditing the Pentagon. You know the Pentagon is the only [federal] agency that has not been audited. And I’ve got support from Republicans to get that policy in place. But of course, given the Republican Tea Party Congress, these bills aren’t going very far.
How is Congress different from when you first worked in Washington?
I worked here in the ’70s and ’80s … as a staffer. It’s different just in terms of the ideologies driving everything, and the fact that there are 40, 50 members who are just saying no to everything that would provide for the common good. I’ve never seen anything in my time here, any hardcore group of members of Congress who want to dismantle the entire government, and that’s what they want — not smaller government, but no government.